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Groundhog Day: Past and Present

Photo courtesy of USA Today

Groundhog Day has been an annual tradition for Americans and Canadians since 1887, when the first event was held on Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. That day marked the beginning of the annual celebration of rodent-based meteorology. However, this event had been occurring for generations in other places.

The idea of using a groundhog to predict the coming season was brought to the U.S. by German immigrants, who had used a badger in their home country. Germans derived their celebration from the Christian holiday Candlemas, which developed from the pagan festival Imbolc, celebrated by the Celts. Imbolc marks the beginning of spring, while Candlemas is a celebration of the presentation of Jesus at the holy temple in Jerusalem. Some Christians believed that if it was sunny during Candlemas, there would be at least another 40 days of winter. This superstition led Germans to form their own legend: there would be a longer wait for spring if badgers or other small animals saw their own shadows.

As Germans immigrated to America, several settled in Pennsylvania. In the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a local newspaper editor, Clymer Freas, managed to convince businessmen and groundhog hunters in the town to begin the annual tradition. On Feb. 2, 1887, the men traveled to a place in Punxsutawney known as Gobbler’s Knob. It was here that the tradition began, with the first official Groundhog Day ending in the prediction of a longer winter.

Present day, there is still a yearly groundhog celebration in Punxsutawney, though it is now a much larger affair. The town is still rather small, being home to less than 6,000 people; however, during the Groundhog Day event, tens of thousands of people gather annually to await the creature’s prediction. Local officials, known as the Inner Circle, conduct the celebration, all while wearing traditional top hats and speaking a Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. It’s rumored that they speak to the star of the event in Groundhogese.

This year, Groundhog Day fell on a Tuesday and Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog emerged from his burrow at approximately 7:25 a.m. It was lonelier than normal, as COVID-19 prevented any spectators from attending the event. Phil did see his shadow, so we may be in for six more weeks of winter.

By Maggie Barnhill, Contributing Writer

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