Why We Celebrate Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day, February 2, is supposedly the day that a groundhog will peek outside of its burrow to see if winter is over yet. They say that if the groundhog sees its shadow, it will be frightened and run back to the burrow, and we'll have six more weeks of winter. If it doesn't see its shadow and stays out, that means spring is on its way... in about six weeks. You see, February second is halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. The date is akin to Imbolc, the pagan holiday celebrated for just that reason. Imbolc is February first this year. February second is also Candlemas, a Christian feast day marking 40 days after Christmas.

Falling as it does in the middle of our calendar winter, there's no mystery as to why people wanted some sign of spring returning, but why a groundhog? It wasn't always so. Old Celtic poetry speaks of a snake coming out of its hole. In other parts of Europe, a bear, hedgehog, or badger, all being animals that hibernate, were traditionally used as weather forecasters. When Europeans immigrated to America, they found that the groundhog was the most common hibernating animal around, so Groundhog Day it became.  

For a long time, the holiday was just a piece of folklore, and anyone who looked for a groundhog considered it a local event, or just a tale to pass along to children. But Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, keeps a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil who has been very publicly predicting weather every year since 1887! Phil is ceremoniously awakened every February second to give his opinion on the coming spring to crowds of thousands who make the pilgrimage to the town's Groundhog Day festival. Punxsutawney Phil is the most famous groundhog, but other towns have their own "official" groundhogs as well. Phil is not expected to predict weather conditions outside of Pennsylvania. Even so, his record of accuracy is only around 39%. You can't really blame him. He's just a rodent and he is a little groggy after sleeping for a couple of months. As in the early days of the tradition, an early spring is an exercise in wishful thinking.  

For the past 30 years, Groundhog Day also means the movie. In Groundhog Day, weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, visits Punxsutawney for the Groundhog Day festival and becomes stuck in a time loop. He is forced to repeat February second over and over until he gets it right. Many dictionaries now have two definitions for Groundhog Day. The first is the holiday, and the second is a metaphor for being stuck in an endless time loop where every day is the same, inspired by the movie. Watching the film has become a tradition for February the 2nd. For years, some movie channels would show the movie over and over all day long, but in the age of streaming, you can watch it as many or as few times as you like. To celebrate the movie's 30th anniversary, a remastered version of Groundhog Day is being re-released to select theaters this month.

Have a happy Groundhog Day!

(Image credit: Cephas)

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When I lived out in the country (we had 10 acres, most neighbors had 10 to 20 acres) there were all sorts of wildlife running around. Deer, coyote, red foxes, kestrels, eagles, red tail hawks, moles, voles and, yes, groundhogs! There was one groundhog that we named "the sentry" because it liked to sit on top of a wooden fence post and would stay there for hours just watching the cars and the world go by. One day my hubby and I went for a walk down the road which was unusual because we didn't do that often. A few hundred feet away from our home by the side of the road we heard a high sharp whistling noise. Upon investigation I found a baby groundhog dangling upside down with it's ankle caught in the crook of a small bush. Mama groundhog was frantic, running up to her baby and then scooting away when I approached. I bent the limb of the bush down and the baby landed on some scrub, unharmed, thank goodness! Mama ran to her baby and they scurried off to safety. I have sometimes wondered what might have happened had we not gone for a walk that very day.
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