Many of you are probably aware of the tradition regarding Punxsutawney Phil, the chunky rodent from Pennsylvania who predicts the end of winter each year. On February 2nd, after a long winter’s sleep, Phil comes out of his hole to look for his shadow. If it’s sunny, and he sees it, he regards this as a sign of six more weeks of winter and returns to his hole. If it’s cloudy, and he doesn’t see his shadow, he views this as a sign of spring’s arrival, and he leaves his hole to look for a mate. This tradition, known as Groundhog Day, has become a fun part of American folklore.
Some believe Groundhog Day had its formative roots in the European Christian tradition of “Candlemas Day.” February 2nd was the day that certain churches commemorated the presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. According to tradition, February 2nd was also the day when priests would bless the candles of their congregation for the remainder of winter. The size of the candles brought out for blessing supposedly related to how long and cold the winter was expected to be. The bigger the candles — the longer and colder the winter.
It appears that the Germans expanded on this tradition by selecting a rodent to help predict the weather, and thus, the size of their candles. In Germany, the rodent of choice was the hedgehog. Once German immigrants came to America and settled primarily in Pennsylvania, they continued the tradition, but switched from hedgehogs to the much more plentiful, groundhogs.
In 1887, a newspaper editor from Pennsylvania belonging to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club declared that Phil — the Punxsutawney groundhog — was America’s “true” weather-forecasting rodent. The line of groundhogs from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, have been known as “Phil” ever since.
And there you have it — the history of Groundhog Day in America.