Will it be a long, cold winter, or will spring come early? On February 2, in Pennsylvania, an animal gives its prediction.
Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, has a population of just over 6000, but once a year the sleepy town welcomes up to 30,000 visitors who come to see a groundhog – a North-American marmot. On 2 February, Candlemas Day, Punxsutawney Phil is taken out of his burrow in a quaint ceremony. If he can see his shadow (i.e. if it’s sunny), that indicates there will be six more weeks of winter. If he can’t (i.e. it’s cloudy), Phil is said to forecast an early spring.
Every culture has traditional proverbs or sayings about the weather and seasons. In Britain an especially common one is, “Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.” In French, there is a proverb for practically every month’s weather. Britain also has St Swithun’s Day, 15 July. Tradition says that if it rains that day, it will rain for 40 days.
The Groundhog Day tradition was apparently brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants, who chose the groundhog to replace the hedgehog or badger they used back in Europe. Today, that tradition is kept alive in Bavaria on Siebenschläfertag (27 June), when the weather is supposed to mirror that of the seven following weeks.
But over the last 131 years, Groundhog Day has developed its own particular character. There is a Groundhog Club (originally made up of groundhog hunters. Shh! Don’t tell Phil!) The 15 members of the Club’s Inner Circle dress up in top hats and tails to lead a procession to Phil’s burrow on Groundhog Day. They pull him out and the legend says he gives his prediction to the Club president in “groundhogese”. The Club is moving with the times, though. Last year, the president encouraged the crowd of spectators to tweet the prediction using the hashtag #SixMoreWeeksOfWinter!
A Long-lived Beast
Groundhogs generally live 6-8 years. Punxsutawney Phil’s longevity (he is now supposedly more than 131 years old) is put down to drinking a special “elixir of life”. Apart from one night a year, Phil lives in a nice warm terrarium in the Punxsutawney Library.
Groundhog Day was a regional curiosity until the 1993 Hollywood comedy Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray played an unpleasant TV weather presenter who is sent to do a “soft news” item about Groundhog Day for the fourth year in a row. He becomes trapped, re-living 2 February over and over again until he learns from his mistakes. The film has become a classic, regularly repeated on TV in a curious trope of its own story, and has made Punxsutawney Phil famous all over the world.
Various other towns in the U.S.A. and Canada have their own weather predicting groundhogs. The Weather Channel even keeps a “Top 11 Groundhogs to Watch” list for the U.S.A.!