Groundhog Day was first celebrated on February 2, 1886 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but the legend of the groundhog’s prognosticating prowess was first established a year later. A group of devoted followers went to Gobbler’s Knob to spread word that the little rodent had special powers to determine the length of the winter.
If the furry mascot emerges from its cave only to scamper back in without spotting its shadow, we should rejoice: Winter would be ending soon. However, if the sun that morning allows the groundhog to see its shadow the winter weather will go on for an additional six weeks.
This tradition was highlighted and popularized by the 1993 film ‘Groundhog Day’ starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. No word on whether the character of “Ned Ryerson” is based on a real Punsutawney insurance salesman. Here are a few more things you might not know about Groundhog Day.
It comes from German tradition
According to Germanic tradition, on Candlemas Day local people would rely on the gestures of hedgehogs or badgers to inform them about the upcoming weather. It started well before the U.S. joined in on the fun, and came to America via German pioneers. Since badgers aren’t commonly found on the Eastern half of the country, the tradition was transferred to include the groundhog.
Canada does it, too
Parts of Canada celebrates Groundhog Day with an albino rodent named Wiarton Willie, and Nova Scotia has Shubenacadie Sam. (There’s also “Brandon Bob” of Brandon, Manitoba and “Balzac Billy,” the “prairie prognosticator” of Alberta who apparently wears a snazzy jacket and tennis shoes.) Shubenacadie Sam is the first one to get his prediction in since he is located farthest east of them all.
Punxsutawney Phil is named after a British king
Popular, yes, but royal? The world’s most famous groundhog was named after King Philip. Previously, he was known as Br’er Groundhog, but that just didn’t have the same ring to it.
Phil has competition
Groundhogs around the country come out, too, on the holiday. They include Buckeye Chuck, Staten Island Chuck, Smith Lake Jake, General Beauregard Lee (who has two doctorate degrees thrust on him), Octorara Orphie, and more. It doesn’t stop at rodents, though: Mount Dora Mike and Mount Dora Millie are a prognosticating tortoise-and-hare team from Florida who get in on the action.
But Alaska doesn’t participate
February 2nd may be Groundhog Day for the rest of us, yet it’s Marmot Day in Alaska. Local politicians decided that since groundhogs weren’t common in their area, they’d respect critters that do populate their grounds. And while the marmot doesn’t possess any special powers, there are plans to educate children about the animal on the new holiday.
Groundhogs don’t live that long
If it seems like 127 years is too long for one groundhog to survive, that’s because it is. By a lot. The average wild groundhog has a lifespan of just two to three years. Other groundhogs are estimated at six to eight years. Still, these facts don’t stop local townspeople from carrying on the ruse that their lovable Phil is an established centenarian, and may very well live forever.
Phil’s not exactly accurate
Although Phil’s supporters defend the groundhog’s talent for weather forecasting, the U.S. National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) did the research and concluded that the rodent is only right about 40 percent of the time. They looked at the average temperatures for the winter and spring seasons, and found that often when Phil would suggest there’s more snowy weather to be had, the temperatures actually turned for the better.
The movie ‘Groundhog Day’ sparked huge interest in the holiday
Considered a modern-day classic, ‘Groundhog Day’ drove Americans to more than the theaters. Attendance at the annual festivities reportedly increased by as much as five times in the years after the film came out. Numbers vary on exactly how many people come out for the annual event, but as many as 20,000 people are following on site or online.
Punxsutawney Phil is really into social media
If you can’t make it out to Pennsylvania on Thursday, that’s quite alright. You can keep tabs on the groundhog via his Facebook page or Twitter account. But probably the best way to follow along is via his FourSquare account where you can earn a Groundhog Day badge by participating along on the festivity website.
Not everyone loves Groundhog Day
PETA has pressured organizers in recent years to do away with the practice, calling it inhumane. They suggest replacing the groundhog with an electronic version. “Phil is forced to be on display year round at the local library and is denied the ability to prepare for an enter yearly hibernation,” they charge.