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A groundhog pops his head out of a snow covered burrow

The history of Groundhog day

Punxsutawney Phil has been predicting the weather ever since the first Groundhog Day in 1887 | Image: Shutterstock

Of all the American festivities and traditions, Groundhog Day is probably the strangest. Over here, we're mainly aware of it due to the 1993 Bill Murray film of the same name, but Groundhog Day means much more to our cousins over the pond.

The 2nd of February has little meaning for most people except for the population of the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, because they're gearing up for the annual Groundhog Day celebration. The story goes that a groundhog, the infamous Punxsutawney Phil, pokes his head out of the ground each year on this day. If he sees his shadow (due to a clear day) and gets scared, this means winter will carry on for another six weeks. However, a cloudy day and no shadow means an early spring is on its way.

It's become a formal ceremony in the town, with The President of the Inner Circle (the only person able to understand Phil and his prediction) translating the message. The Voice President then announces this message to the present crowds and the thousands watching avidly on live TV.

Superstition and tradition combine in perfect harmony to create the celebration of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney and it has since spread across the USA. Let's look more closely at some of the quirkier facts and surprises before it comes around this year.

The history of Groundhog Day is rooted in Europe

Germany, no less! While we may not have much of an understanding of Groundhog Day in Europe, it can be traced back to Germanic settlers in Pennsylvania. It has its roots in the ancient Christian tradition Candlemas, which saw the clergy blessing and distributing the candles people would need for winter. In Germany, this tradition was expanded to include the selection of an animal, initially a hedgehog, to predict the weather. Once landed in America, German settlers maintained their practice but switched from the hedgehog to the groundhog, much easier to come across in the Keystone State.

There is only one Punxsutawney Phil

Legend says the same Punxsutawney Phil has been predicting the weather ever since the first Groundhog Day in 1887. The reality doesn't quite stack up, as the average groundhog lives around ten years, but who are we to argue with folklore?

In reality, there have likely been around 10-12 Phils since the first celebration. It's also worth remembering Punxsutawney Phil is just a nickname, and his full ceremonial name is: ‘Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary’. Catchy!

Groundhogs aren't too good at predicting the weather

Phil doesn't have the best of records when it comes to getting his predictions correct. The celebration organisers assert he's right every time, but Stormfax took the time to research his predictions and found just a 39% forecasting success. It wouldn't do to ruin the fun of the celebration, but you would get more accurate results with the flip of a coin!

Groundhogs used to be on the celebratory menu

After the first Groundhog Day in 1887, all attendees headed off to enjoy a feast to celebrate the great day. The dinner is said to have taken place at the Elks Lodge in Punxsutawney and was packed with delicacies made from groundhog meat and even the less than appealing sounding groundhog punch. The tradition of eating groundhogs on Groundhog Day quickly faded out, however, and today's celebrators enjoy a more traditional meal, with fewer of Phil's brothers and sisters on the table.

There are other groundhog weather predictors

Punxsutawney Phil is the most famous of all the weather predicting groundhogs, but he isn't the only one. Many towns and cities across America now have their own Groundhog Day ceremonies, including their own groundhogs to predict the local weather. Some of the top names to remember includes General Beau Lee of Atlanta, Georgia, Birmingham Bill of Birmingham, Alabama, and Sir Walter Wally of Raleigh, North Carolina, a nod to the great British explorer

If you're hoping for a warm start to the year, then tune in to Punxsutawney Phil's Twitter feed or tune into the live broadcast of the ceremony. Let's hope for no shadows and the promise of an enjoyable early spring when the little guy pops out of his burrow.