Originally written on February 2, 2020. Updated on February 2, 2023
Groundhog Day, on February 2, claim that if a groundhog emerging from its burrow on this day sees its shadow due to clear weather, it will retreat to its den and winter will persist for six more weeks; but if it does not see its shadow because of cloudiness, spring will arrive early.
The weather lore come from German-speaking areas where the badger (Dachs, in German) was the forecasting animal. This appears to be an enhanced version of the lore that clear weather on the Christian religious holiday of Candlemas forebodes a prolonged winter.
Candlemas Day has become most commonly associated with the current celebration, but its roots are older than that. The celebration started in Christianity as the day when Christians would take their candles to the church to have them blessed and this, they felt, would bring blessings to their household for the remaining winter.
As time rolled on the day evolved into another form, and the following English folk song highlights the transition to weather prognostication:
“If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.”
This different interpretation of Candlemas Day became the norm for most of Europe, however, as you can read, there is no mention of an animal of any kind in the song.
The German folks already had a tradition of marking Candlemas on February 2 as “Badger Day” (locally “Dachstag”), where if a badger emerging found it to be a sunny day thereby casting a shadow, it foreboded the prolonging of winter by four more weeks, although regionally the animal was also a bear or a fox.
Similarity to the groundhog lore has been noted for the German formula “Sonnt sich der Dachs in der Lichtmeßwoche, so geht er auf vier Wochen wieder zu Loche” (or, if the badger sunbathes during Candlemas-week, for four more weeks he will be back in his hole), while a slight variant is found in a collection of weather lore (bauernregeln, literally “farmers’ rules”) printed in 1823.
So the same tradition as the Germans, except that winter’s spell would be prolonged for six weeks instead of four, was maintained by the Pennsylvania Dutch, immigrants from Germanic-speaking areas of Europe, on Groundhog Day. For them, it became the dox which in local dialect referred, not by chance, to “groundhog”.
In any case the German version, with the introduction of the badger (or other beasts) was actually an expansion on the more simple tradition above mentioned that if the weather was sunny and clear on Candlemas Day people expected winter to continue, a version summarized in the English verses (a Scots dialect) that runs that “If Candlemas is fair and clear / There’ll be twa winters in the year“, with equivalent also in French and German.
There also did exist a belief among Roman Catholics in Britain that the hedgehog predicted the length of winter, or so it has been claimed: apparently, in the Gaelic calendar of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, Brigid’s Day (February 1) is a day for predicting the weather. While in Scotland the animal that heralds spring on this day is a snake, and on the Isle of Man a large bird, in Irish folk tradition it was the first day of Spring, and thus of the farmer’s year. To see a hedgehog was a good weather sign, for the hedgehog comes come out of the hole in which he has spent the winter, looks about to judge the weather, and returns to his burrow if bad weather is going to continue. If he stays out, it means that he knows the spring is coming.
The largest Groundhog Day celebration is held in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where crowds as large as 40,000 gather each year, nearly eight times the year-round population of the town.
The average partecipation had been about 2,000 until the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day”, which is set at the festivities in Punxsutawney, after which attendance rose to about 10,000. The comedy with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell became the 13th highest grossing of the year, with over $70 million at the box office.
The official Phil is pretended to be a supercentenarian, having been the same forecasting beast since 1887, even though in Punxsutawney, 1886 marked the first time that Groundhog Day appeared in the local newspaper.
The live stream has been a tradition for the past several years, allowing more people than ever to watch the animal meteorologist.
2021 will be the 135th, and for the first time, Phil will be wearing a mask. Of course, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremony will be held behind closed doors, with no fans allowed to attend with all members in the ceremony socially distanced while it will be livestreamed virtually.
The festival starts at 6.30 local hours, that is 12.30 European (at least in Austria, Italy, France…) hours.
Images from web / Google Research