Updated: Feb 2, 2022
When I wrote this article in February of 2021, we were just getting over a massive Nor’Easter in the New York Metropolitan Area and the snow in this area seems to just continue. One year later (2022), the Northeast and New England experienced another major Nor'Easter on January 28 and another massive storm is coming on February 3 and 4. While weather was on the forefront of the mind, I had to quickly search about what occurred in Gobbler’s Knob, Pennsylvania on the morning of February 2, 2021. The famed groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, did see his shadow, predicting 6 more weeks of winter. (The famous Groundhog repeated his prediction for 2022.)
Every February 2, as many of us hear about the famous groundhog in Pennsylvania, the annual event begs a few questions: Where does this tradition come from? Why does this event occur on every second day of February? Why do we care? In short, I concluded that Groundhog Day is about hope.
We look back a few thousand years ago to understand the origins of what we now know as Groundhog Day and how events leading to this day progressed over time.
In agrarian cultures, the position of the sun and other astrological aspects was an indicator of the planting season and the winter to come. These signs and positions of the celestial lights and how people interpreted them were particularly important because commerce, economies, and survival were dependent on healthy and abundant crops. Whether it is superstition or some sort of belief, the thought was that mid-way between winter and spring (more on this later), if it was sunny and fair out, then the remainder of winter would be cold with bad weather. This occurrence would inevitably delay the planting season. If this period was gloomy, then people believed that the remainder of the season would be fair, which translated to earlier crops and reaping more benefits (Samford, 2017). One of the ancient societies who believed in this were the Celtics who identified midpoints between seasons called cross-quarter days and marked them for their agrarian needs. The midpoint between winter and spring was one of the most important to the Celts because it was about planting crops. This midpoint happens to fall on the 2nd day of February (Lewis, 2016).
During these times when agrarian societies were common, the people in these societies celebrated holidays around cross-quarter days that were significant to agriculture. In ancient pagan cultures, such as the Celtic culture, Imbolc occurs on the February 2 cross-quarter. Imbolc is a celebration of the Celtic sun goddess named Brighde, which means “the Bright one.” The names of Britain, Bridget, and Brigid also derive from Brighde (Samford, 2017). Perhaps a coincidence, but Catholics celebrate the feast of Saint Brigid on February 1. This famous Irish saint died on February 1 in the year 523.
We see familiar and similar holidays to Imbolc during various times of the year that relate to agriculture, the seasons, and humanity. As mentioned in my February 2020 article “A Saint, A President and A Massacre,” the Romans celebrated Lupercalia for fertility. This holiday coincided with the Christian and the now secular holiday of Valentine’s Day and was in anticipation of the coming spring. Another example is the Celtic holiday of Samhain, which is on November 1, which is the cross-quarter date between autumn and winter for the purpose of honoring the dead. The date is also All Saints Day in Christianity, with the next day (November 2) celebrating All Souls or Day of the Dead. This time of year coincides with the annual agricultural event of the harvest and the coming of the cold winter (Earthsky.com). After the Celts, cultures, and societies were very aware of the cross-quarter days and some looked toward nature for signs of what the weather would do and how this weather would affect crops. The Germanic people (possibly descendants of the Celts and who lived in what is now southern Germany, Switzerland, and Austria) would look to certain animals to tell them when they should plant their crops (Bradbury, 2021). These Germanic people focused on badgers and hedgehogs because they considered those two animals as smart and sensible when it came to weather. The Germanic people thought that if they “saw their shadow” and quickly went back to hibernation, then there would be more winter to come. If the weather during this cross-quarter period was gloomy, the animals would not see their shadow and warm weather would quickly follow (Samford, 2017).
The cross-quarter period between winter and spring was clearly about light and its impact as the days were getting longer. In the Middle Ages, Christianity spread to these areas and celebrated the date of February 2 (exactly 40 days after Christmas) as the commemoration of the Presentation of Jesus Christ in the Jewish Temple, otherwise known as "Candlemas." In the story of the Presentation in the Bible, the evangelist Luke refers to Jesus Christ as “a light to the revelation of Gentiles” (Luke 2). Traditionally, Catholic priests bless candles on this day to light homes for the remainder of winter. Like the ancient Celts and Germanic people, these European Christians believed that if the sun came out on Candlemas, then there would be 40 more days of the snowy and frigid weather (History.com). The following is an English song that sums up the relationship between the winter season and Candlemas: "If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come, Winter, have another flight; If Candlemas bring clouds and rain, Go Winter, and come not again" (Groundhog.org).
The tradition of predicting an early spring or more winter crossed the Atlantic Ocean into the United States in the mid to the late 19th century. In the early 18th century, people from the Germanic lands settled parts of Pennsylvania and much like many immigrants from all different lands who came to what is now the United States, they brought their traditions and beliefs. A significant difference between the Germanic lands and Pennsylvania was that there were more hedgehogs and badgers in Europe and more groundhogs (who also hibernate in the winter) in Pennsylvania. The Germanic people thought of the groundhog as like the hedgehog in terms of sensibility when it came to weather.
In 1886, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh) was the first (known) place in the United States to popularize the groundhog coming out of his burrow to predict the remaining winter. In 1887, the spectacle was moved to nearby Gobbler’s Knob. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club says that the famed groundhog is the namesake for a “King Philip." However, it is somewhat of a mystery as to which King Philip and from what kingdom. Since prior to 1961, people knew the famous groundhog as “Br’er Groundhog," it is plausible that Prince Philip, the recently deceased Duke of Edinburgh and spouse of Queen Elizabeth II was the namesake for Punxsutawney Phil (Reilly and Thompson, 2020).
In our present day, tens of thousands of spectators, dignitaries, politicians, media and TV cameras greet the “Seer of Seers." You may also recall the 1993 movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. No doubt that this movie popularized the famous Pennsylvania groundhog even more. A true belief in weather prognostication that had impacts on commerce and sustenance has now taken the form of a celebrity complex and media event that disregards the true meaning and story behind Groundhog Day.
A few of the articles that I reviewed from the mainstream media brag about the inaccuracy of the groundhog. In the case of the New York Post, it takes the opportunity to make a political jab at the former mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio. Later in the article, it boasts how Staten Island Chuck is more accurate than Punxsutawney Phil. None of these articles, or others that I viewed talked about the advent or true meaning behind Groundhog Day. While some discussed how the Pennsylvania tradition came from Germany (not entirely accurate) or the relationship with the Christian feast of Candlemas, there is not even a brief mention of the connection to the sun and the impact on crops for the people of these ancient societies. It seems to be more eye catching and entertaining to poke fun or point out the negativity of the day (i.e., the inaccuracy). I highly doubt that the Celts and early Christians would find today’s media coverage of this event entertaining or informative. It was what they knew or believed at the time that impacted their crops and thus, their livelihood.
Place yourself over two thousand years ago in the Celtic lands of Europe at the time of Imbolc and not see the sunshine during that period. On Candlemas, picture an early Christian waiting for the sun to come out or not on this, their significant religious feast. Take yourself back to the Germanic lands of Europe and 19th century Pennsylvania to view the actions of a hedgehog, badger or groundhog on a cloudy Candlemas. Keep in mind that winters were extremely harsh times of years (still are) in these regions, but without electricity, gas and other amenities that make for comfortable winters today. We will never know the joy and optimism that the people in these societies and cultures must have felt on a mere cloudy day in early February. Whether or not the early spring came is not relevant. It was the optimistic feeling and hope that mattered, as it does in a different sense in early February in the present day.
On Groundhog Day 2021, there was an article that by an Associated Press writer in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that understands the idea of the connection between hope and Groundhog Day. The article states in part:
“Shortly after this year’s prediction was revealed, one of the members of the inner circle shared a message he said Phil had told him earlier in the day: ‘After winter, you’re looking forward to one of the most beautiful and brightest springs you’ve ever seen.’ Another member of the ‘inner circle’ noted the uniqueness of the past year. ‘People have been referencing Groundhog Day. It has felt like at times we’re all living the same day over and over again,’ one of the members said. ‘Groundhog Day also shows us that the monotony ends. The cycle will be broken.’ ‘Today actually is Groundhog Day, there’s only one,’ he added. ‘There is quite literally a new day coming over the horizon.’” I am not aware as to whether the author knew about the origin of the period around February 2 and the hope of the ancient Celts, Germanic people, and early Christians. Regardless, the message from the Associated Press writer is hope and optimism.
You now know the full story of Groundhog Day that goes back over two thousand years and has always been a day of hope for better days ahead.
(Earnshaw) (Benozzo Gozzoli) (Quintano)
Bradbury, K. (2021, January 28). The German roots of Groundhog Day. Retrieved February 02, 2021, from https://europe.stripes.com/community-news/german-roots-groundhog-day
Earnshaw, S. (2007, February 3). Imbolc Festival February 3rd 2007 [Photograph found in Flikr, Yahoo!, Marsden, England, United Kingdom]. Retrieved February 2, 2021, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/93988266@N00/379297997 (Originally photographed 2007, February 3)
Groundhog predicts 6 more weeks of winter. (2021, February 02). Retrieved February 02, 2021, from https://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/everything-you-need-to-know-about-groundhog-day?utm_source=EarthSky+News&utm_campaign=7fe8dc73d2-EarthSky_News&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c643945d79-7fe8dc73d2-394597337#roots
History.com Staff. (2012, February 02). Groundhog day: History and facts. Retrieved February 03, 2021, from https://www.history.com/news/groundhog-day-history-and-facts
Legend & Lore. (n.d.). Retrieved February 02, 2021, from https://www.groundhog.org/legend-and-lore
Lewis, D. (2016, February 02). A short history of Groundhog Day. Retrieved January 31, 2021, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/short-history-groundhog-day-180958018/
Quintano, A. (2013, February 2). Grounghog Day from Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania [Photograph found in Fliker, Yahoo!, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania]. Retrieved February 2, 2021, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/quintanomedia/8437246171/ (Originally photographed 2013, February 2)
Reilly, L., & Thompson, A. (2020, January 30). The curious (and possibly murderous) origins of Punxsutawney Phil's name. Retrieved February 03, 2021, from https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/572308/why-punxsutawney-groundhog-called-phil
Samford, J. (2017, January 25). The science behind Groundhog Day. Retrieved January 31, 2021, from https://vpm.org/articles/4932/the-science-behind-groundhog-day