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Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pa., Feb. 2, 2006.

On This Day: First Groundhog Day Celebrated

February 02, 2012 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Feb. 2, 1887, Punxsutawney, Pa., celebrated the first official Groundhog Day, a holiday with roots in ancient traditions.

The Origins of Groundhog Day

On Feb. 2, residents of Punxsutawney, Pa., and other cities and towns across North America gather around to observe a groundhog coming out of its den. If the groundhog sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter; if the groundhog does not, spring will come early.

The tradition has its origins in ancient customs and a Christian feast day. Groundhog Day falls about midway between the winter solstice (Dec. 21 or 22) and the vernal equinox (March 20 or 21). The midpoint between these events, known as a “cross-quarter day,” was a time for celebration in some ancient cultures.

The Celts celebrated a holiday called Imbolc or Oimelc; they believed that “if the weather was bright and clear on Imbolc, the second half of winter would be cold and stormy,” according to Animal Planet.

The date of Feb. 2 is derived from the Christian holiday Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, which is celebrated 40 days after Dec. 25, the date honoring Christ’s birth.

In the medieval period, ancient beliefs about the weather were combined with the Candlemas celebration. A English song said, “If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come, Winter, have another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Go Winter, and come not again.”

In Germany, the Teutons took note of when hibernating animals such as badgers and hedgehogs reappeared, which would signal that winter was nearing its end. This tradition would be integrated into the Candlemas celebration. German settlers brought the tradition to Pennsylvania.
“They determined that the groundhog, resembling the European hedgehog, was a most intelligent and sensible animal and therefore decided that if the sun did appear on February 2nd, so wise an animal as the groundhog would see its shadow and hurry back into its underground home for another six weeks of winter,” according to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

In 1886, the editor of The Punxsutawney Spirit wrote an article about people who went into the woods on Candlemas to observe groundhogs. The following year, the town made Groundhog Day an official holiday. Townspeople gathered around Gobbler’s Knob to watch a groundhog see his shadow, signaling another six weeks of winter.

Modern Groundhog Day Celebrations

Today, the traditions of Groundhog Day are observed from Georgia to Canada. The most famous celebration occurs in Punxsutawney, where the Inner Circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club cares for the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club claims that Phil, who has also been known as Wiley William Woodchuck and Br’er Groundhog, is the same groundhog that made the prediction in 1887 thanks to “drinking the ‘elixir of life,’ a secret recipe.”

There are many other other prognosticating marmots. Wiarton Willie is the weatherman in Wiarton, Ontario, and, as an albino, he has “exotic good looks,” according to the University of Georgia newspaper. General Beauregard Lee, or “Beau,” from Georgia is fairly “down-to-earth” despite having his own “special mansion.”

Groundhog Central offers links to the Web sites of groundhogs and their celebrations, including Birmingham Bill, Holland Huckleberry, Dunkirk Dave and Staten Island Chuck.

Background: Groundhogs

Groundhogs and woodchucks are one and the same. Members of the marmot family, they are also considered “rodents.” It is “illegal in many states to have a groundhog as a pet,” according to the HogHaven Web site. In addition, the Web site has recordings of groundhog shrills, fights, sniffing, and eating sounds. There are also a large number of photographs and videos of groundhogs.

Related Topic: “Groundhog Day” and Its Meaning

The 1993 film “Groundhog Day” brought considerable attention to the holiday, Punxsutawney, and Phil. According to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, the film attracted 30,000 or so people to Punxsutawney to see the groundhog in the years following the movie’s release.

In the movie, Bill Murray keeps reliving an unpleasant Groundhog Day until he is forced re-examine the way he treats the people around him. For some, the film has a deep meaning. It reflects many religious beliefs, such as Buddhism’s cycle of rebirth, Judaism’s emphasis on performing mitzvahs, and the Chinese religion Falun Gong’s concept of elevating oneself by learning from previous faults, according to the Times. New York Times film critic Michael Bronski even says, “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ.”

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