The day is February 2, 1887. Groundhog Day, a holiday featuring a rodent meteorologist, is celebrated for the first time at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The legend goes, if a groundhog comes out of its hole and sees its shadow, it gets scared, running back into its burrow; this means six more weeks of winter weather. No shadow, on the other hand, means spring is right around the corner.
Groundhog Day has roots in the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas. Candlemas is a day where clergy members would bless and then distribute candles needed for the winter. Each candle represents the long and cold winter. Germans expanded upon this concept by selecting their own mammal meteorologist, the hedgehog, to predict their weather. Once in America, German settlers in Pennsylvania carried on the tradition, although they switched from hedgehogs to groundhogs, which were plentiful.
What is a Groundhog?
Groundhogs are also referred to as woodchucks, whistle-pigs, or land-beavers. The term whistle-pig comes from the fact that, when alarmed, a groundhog emits a high-pitched whistle as a warning to the rest of its colony. The name woodchuck has nothing to do with wood. Or chucking. It comes from the Algonquian name for the critters, wuchak. These rodents typically weigh 12 to 15 pounds and live six to eight years. Their diet consists of vegetables and fruits. Groundhogs whistle when afraid or looking for a mate, and are some know them as whistle pigs. They can also climb trees and swim.
Groundhogs begin to hibernate as fall comes to an end; their body temperatures drop significantly during this time. Their heartbeats slow from around eighty to approximately five beats per minute, and they typically lose up to 30% of their body mass. Male groundhogs emerge from their burrows in February to look for a mate (not to predict the weather) before going back underground. They leave hibernation for the season by March.
In 1887, and this is no lie, a groundhog hunting newspaper editor from Punxsutawney, PA writes that Phil, the honorary Punxsutawney groundhog, was America’s only true weather-forecasting groundhog. The line of groundhogs that go by Phil are easily America’s most famous groundhogs; however, other places across North America have their own weather-predicters, from Staten Island Chuck to Birmingham Bill.
Bill Murray’s 1993 film movie Groundhog Day popularized the usage of the term “groundhog day” as one that is repeated over and over. Today, tens of thousands of people converge on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney each February 2 to witness Phil’s prediction. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club hosts a three-day celebration featuring entertainment and activities.