Winter Odd Facts That'll Make You Appreciate Groundhog Day  

Mike Rothschild
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Groundhog Day has been around since 1887, and its traditions go back much further than that. As the lore goes, if it is cloudy when Punxsutawney Phil of rural Pennsylvania emerges from his burrow on February 2, then spring will come early; if it is sunny, he'll see his shadow - meaning winter weather will persist for six more weeks.

What happens on Groundhog Day is a variation on weather lore practiced by ancient peoples for thousands of years, and brought to America by German immigrants. Phil himself has a rich folklore surrounding him, from the "elixir of life" that gives him immortality, to the friendly rivalry he has with the many other weather-divining groundhogs out there. His handlers supposedly keep him safe, and can communicate with him in his language.

If it all sounds a bit silly, well, it is. But Groundhog Day facts aren't about cold hard truth - they're about upholding an ancient tradition and celebrating the coming of spring. Here are some of the most unusual things about this odd holiday.

Ancient Europeans Were All About Animals Predicting Their Weather

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The modern Groundhog Day has its roots in ancient European weather folklore. With no accurate way to predict temperature and rain, Middle Ages farmers used everything from the halo of the moon to the positioning of cows tails. Animals were part of this, and these people would often rely on checking the shadow of a badger or sacred bear to see if winter would drag on.

Groundhog Day Has Both Pagan and Christian Elements

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Groundhog Day is likely an extension of the Christian holiday Candlemas, which was held on February 2, 40 days after the traditional birth of Christ. But like Christmas and Easter, Groundhog Day also has an element of pagan ritual to it.

Specifically, it echoes the Celtic pagan holiday of Imbolc (pronounced "i-MOLG"), also celebrated on February 2, and serving as the traditional halfway point of winter. The festivities had an element of weather divination, often using the shadow of an animal burrowing up from the ground to predict if spring would come early. Then there was drinking and dancing around a fire.

German Immigrants Brought Weather Divining Rodents to America

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It's likely that the modern Groundhog Day tradition came with German immigrants in the 18th century. Weather lore was still popular in Germany around this time, with a typical "German farmers rule" reading something like:

"If the badger is in the sun at Candlemas, he will have to go back into his hole for another four weeks."

When these German farmers settled on the East Coast, they brought their weather lore with them, but groundhogs were much more plentiful than badgers, hedgehogs, and bears. So the groundhog became the prognosticating animal of choice. The first recorded reference to a February 2 "Groundhog Day" is from 1841.

1887 Was Punxsutawney Phil's Debut as a Weather Predictor

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In 1887, centuries of unofficial traditions came together for the first Groundhog Day celebrated in the traditional Groundhog Day capital of Punxsutawney, PA. The town had the usual German groundhog festival, which included eating the animal as a delicacy. The editor of the town's paper, Clymer H. Freas, declared that the town's local rodent, whom he named Punxsutawney Phil, was the world's only true weather predictor.

A small crowd gathered at the top of Gobbler's Knob, a small hill outside the small town, to celebrate the little fella's emergence out of the ground, and to check if he saw his shadow. He did that year, incidentally.