I wonder if it was winter boredom or just keen observation that led to what we know today as Groundhog Day. Either way, it all started many years ago.
Groundhog Day had its beginnings in the Christian festival of Candlemas, held on February 2nd. This celebration, dating back to the fourth century, is held 40 days after Christmas and comes between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It celebrates the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of Jesus Christ at the Temple.
Priests handed out candles during Candlemas. Their gesture was symbolic, with the candles representing Christ as the light of the world. It was also practical for warmth and light. People even brought candles to be blessed. Later, animals also became connected to the festival of Candlemas.
Did you know that dozens of different animals go into hibernation in winter? Bears go to their dens, and raccoons find hiding places. Even bees, bats, and turtles hibernate. It’s their way of coping. Some animals just slow down, while others go into a deep sleep. They conserve energy, suppress their metabolism, and eat less.
Years ago, people observed bears in winter and waited by their dens for signs of activity. Germans chose to look at hedgehogs. Later, groundhogs were observed because they were plentiful and easy to find.
The Pennsylvania Dutch had a superstition. They believed that if a groundhog came out of its den and saw its shadow, there would be six more weeks of winter. If it didn’t see a shadow due to cloudy weather, then we could look forward to an early spring.
The first official Groundhog Day celebration took place on February 2, 1887. It was started by a newspaper editor and member of a groundhog hunting group in Pennsylvania. He put the winter superstition to the test. He then declared that the small town of Punxsutawney had America’s only true weather-forecasting groundhog! Their groundhog even had a name—Phil! Some say it was named after royalty, such as King Philip or Prince Philip.
Since the late 1800s, Punxsutawney Phil has been predicting the weather by seeing his shadow or not! People assemble on Gobbler Knob each February 2nd to see what Phil has to say. After all, there’s not much to do around town on a snowy Pennsylvania morning in the dead of winter!
Phil is quite the celebrity. He celebrated his 100th anniversary in 1986 by meeting President Ronald Reagan at the White House. Then a 1993 movie starring Bill Murray really put Phil and his small town on the map! Thousands of people started coming to Punxsutawney following the release of Columbia Picture’s Groundhog Day. In 1995, Phil flew to Chicago for a guest spot on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Presently Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, is a very big deal. It’s a two to three-day celebration. Among the festivities on the schedule are a Gobbler’s Knob Got Talent Show, a Groundhog Banquet, Groundhog Ball, and Lunch with Phil. Did you know that Phil even travels to events in style? He is carried in a special clear tube allowing for a 360-degree view. His “Inner Circle” travels with him in a special vehicle called the Phil Mobile.
What happens in town the rest of the year? Well, Phil quietly resides with his wife, Phyllis in a climate-controlled sanctuary attached to the library. His every need is met by one of the “Inner Circle.” This is a group of some fifteen local dignitaries responsible for carrying on the tradition of Groundhog Day every year.
Phil has no time to slow down! He has a Facebook page and his own website. A wide variety of Punxsutawney merchandise is approved for sale. You can order T-shirts, sweatshirts, blankets, caps, totes, or coffee mugs. Phil also swears by several brands of coffee. You should try his Hibernation Blend or perhaps a cup of his Dark Shadow!
This year Phil is being inducted into the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center Meteorologist Hall of Fame on February 1. Not bad for an animal who is only right about 50% of the time! A toss of the coin could tell you as much about the weather!
However, local folks believe Phil is 100 percent accurate. Don’t even get them started! They feel Phil is just misinterpreted by his handler on the years he seems to get it wrong! True locals also believe that due to a magic elixir, Phil is the same groundhog each and every year. A groundhog’s average life span is six to eight years, but in Punxsutawney, he is immortal!
Did you know that Phil is not the only famous groundhog predictor? Today he competes with the likes of Sir Walter Wally from Raleigh, North Carolina, and Birmingham Bill from Birmingham, Alabama. Some claim to be more accurate on the weather than he ever was. But we all know there is only one Punxsutawney Phil!
(Shopping, facts, and events. Everything you want to know about Punxsutawney Phil is on the website)