Folklore has it that winter will continue for six more weeks if a groundhog sees his shadow on February 2. To me, that has always seemed counterintuitive. If the sun is out to cast a shadow, shouldn't that mean warmer weather is near? But the tradition means that the groundhog is frightened by his shadow and retreats into his den to hibernate another six weeks.
Groundhog Day originated in Europe centuries ago, and is based on the ancient belief that the emergence of a hibernating creature forecast the imminent arrival of spring. When Germans settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th century, they brought the custom with them. In Europe different animals were used, including badgers and bears. Groundhogs were plentiful in Pennsylvania, so that’s the animal that got the job there.
The History Society of Berks County in Reading, Pennsylvania, has the earliest known record of Groundhog Day in the United States. A February 5, 1841, diary entry by Berks County, Pennsylvania, storekeeper James Morris reads:
“Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”
Candlemas is a traditional name for the Catholic Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. It is mentioned in this English poem:
As the light grows longer
The cold grows stronger
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas be cloud and rain
Winter will be gone and not come again
A farmer should on Candlemas day
Have half his corn and half his hay
On Candlemas day if thorns hang a drop
You can be sure of a good pea crop.
Other feasts and festivals also occur on or about February 2, including St Brigid’s Day and Imbolc. February 2 is one of the four cross-quarters of the year. A cross-quarter is a day approximately halfway between a solstice and an equinox.
Some in the past may have marked the beginning of spring when daylight made progress against night, on February 2, the cross-quarter. Others, as we do in modern times, marked spring on the Vernal Equinox, when on March 20 or 21 the sun shines on the equator, making day and night of nearly equal length worldwide. Groundhog Day may have originated as a compromise between the two beliefs.
Groundhog Day has long been popular in the United States, but the 1993 movie of the same name, filmed in Punxsutawney and featuring Phil, established it as an international phenomenon. Press reports estimate the biggest crowd to attend Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney was 40,000. On the morning of February 2, Punxsutawney Phil is pulled from his den by keepers dressed in tuxedos. It has become a raucous event.
The Secret of the First One Up by Iris Hiskey Arno, illustrated by Renee Graef
Groundhog Weather School by Joan Holub, illustrated by Kristin Sorra
Groundhog Day by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by Mike Gordon
The Groundhog Day Book of Facts and Fun by Wendie Old, illustrated by Paige Billin-Frye