When the first frost appears on the grass and leaves, groundhog falls into a winter hibernation. Once the animal wakes up and leaves its burrow, it is preparing for the imminent spring. That is why the farmers created a tradition that expects the animal to make a weather forecast. Every February 2, particular North American towns engage in Groundhog Day spring predictions, using a celebrity groundhog to come out and look for its shadow. If the animal sees its shadow, it hides back in the burrow and people interpret it as six more weeks of winter; if the weather is too grim for the sun to cast a shadow, the groundhog stays outside and everyone prepares for the close coming of spring.
This is a holiday that originated in Europe and first came to the Americas with German settlers living in Pennsylvania. Canada adopted the date in the 20th century and the holiday’s fame there spread quickly.
The first animal to “predict” weather for humans was the badger or the hedgehog in Europe; the forecast was important, because the tribes planned planting their crops according to it. Other origins of the Groundhog Day may be traced back to Candlemas, an ancient Christian holiday with blessed candle processions; one of its symbols is the snowdrop flower which blooms very early in the year and symbolizes hope and a beginning of the new season. This custom was enhanced by German animal weather predictions and transported to America with the settlers in the 18th century. There the badger/hedgehog was replaced by a groundhog, which had a much bigger population in the United States. Animal prediction might have served as an arbitrator between the two calendar traditions: one stated that spring began with Imbolc (in-between winter solstice and spring equinox), and the other claimed that spring equinox (March 20 – 21) marked the inauguration. These two dates occur six weeks one after the other, which is exactly how long the groundhog may predict winter to stay for.
The most popular location for the tradition is Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where the Groundhog Day has been a large-scale event since 1886, if not earlier. The town’s animal Punxsutawney Phil, named probably after king Philip, became a nationwide celebrity in 1887, when the editor Clymer H. Freas popularized the groundhog as the town’s “meteorologist”. The most prominent celebrations of the Groundhog Day are also noted in Arizona, Texas, and other towns of Pennsylvania: Quarryville in Lancaster County, the Anthracite Region of Schuylkill County and the Sinnamahoning Valley of Bucks County.
The holiday came to stay in Canada in 1956, when the country’s first groundhog, Wiarton Willie became famous in Bruce County. Other Canadian celebrity animals are Shubenacadie Sam from Nova Scotia, Brandon Bob from Manitoba, and Balzac Billy from Alberta. Although the groundhog accuracy in weather forecast is two times lower than the Groundhog Day festival organizers claim, the holiday attracts growing attention in Canada.
Groundhog Day is not a national holiday in either the United States nor Canada, but the locations in which the celebrations are organized might experience traffic and general commotion in the streets. In Punxsutawney, the holiday is celebrated at Gobbler’s Knob (near groundhog Phil’s house), where apart from the weather prediction, there are given speeches by prominent figures, such as the Governor of Pennsylvania. Some American states use different animals in their weather forecast: in Portland, Oregon it is a hedgehog; in Nevada, it is a desert tortoise, Mojave Max; in New Orleans, Louisiana, it is a coypu. In Canada, the groundhog does not wake up on its own because of the region’s cold climate; the animal is aroused in order to give a prediction, and then it falls back asleep.
Groundhog Day’s significance rose after the 1993 Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, which popularized Punxsutawney’s tradition on a worldwide scale. The comedy initially presents the holiday in a notorious loop, repeating itself over and over; with time, however, Groundhog Day turns out to be the perfect opportunity to redeem and make a change in one’s life. This encapsulates the meaning of the holiday: the groundhog is there to give people hope for a fresh start in the upcoming spring season, when every being comes back to life.