Groundhog Day: Predicting an Early Spring

Every 2nd February, there is a popular tradition where thousands of people watch as a small rodent* emerges from its burrow*. The idea is to see the groundhog will see its shadow and retreat back into its den or stay out in the open

Groundhog Day: Predicting an Early Spring.
Groundhog Day: Predicting an Early Spring.

Author: Joshua Burns

Every 2nd February, there is a popular tradition where thousands of people watch as a small rodent* emerges from its burrow*. The idea is to see the groundhog will see its shadow and retreat back into its den or stay out in the open. If it does go back into its den, then the folk understanding is that winter will continue for another six weeks. If it stays out, this is meant to signify that spring will arrive early.

Where did the tradition come from?

Groundhog Day is thought to come from German communities in Pennsylvania in the United States. Originally, the animal wasn’t even a groundhog at all, but a type of badger from Germany.

There are mentions of Groundhog Day going back to 1840, but the first official Groundhog Day was in 1887 taking place in the Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney. Here, a group made a trip to a part of the town called ‘Gobbler’s Knob’ to find out* what the groundhog saw, and this has been the traditional spot ever since.

But this tradition didn’t just stick to asking the groundhog if it was going to be and early spring or not. The Groundhog Club was formed in the 1840s, and they decided that it wasn’t enough to see the groundhog; you also had to eat it. They organised hunting parties, and would have Groundhog Picnics, where they ate the meat they caught and even had a drink called ‘groundhog punch’.
This hunting part quickly fell out of popularity, due to a lack of interest from outsiders.

Where is it celebrated?

The most popular celebration takes place in Punxsutawney itself, and draws crowds of up to 40,000 people ¬– nearly eight times the number of people who live there during the year. This number shot up* after 1993, when a film starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell came out. Due to the high numbers, they also have a live stream on the internet to allow even more people to watch the weather-predicting marmot.

Is it accurate?

Does all this fuss actually have a basis in fact? The short answer is: no. The long answer is: it’s even less accurate than if it was all just random chance. At the Pennsylvania Groundhog Club, they keep all the statistics for each year. Out of 120 forecasts, the animal (known as Phil) has predicted 103 for a long winter, and just 17 for an early spring. This ends up just being a 39% accuracy rating.

Aside from the German tradition of ‘Candlemas’, where the modern Groundhog Day is thought to have originated from, there are other similar traditions from different countries. In Germany, the animal that predicted the arrival of spring was usually a badger, although it could sometimes be a fox or a bear.

In Canada, there is a more simplified tradition of the Groundhog Day. Canadians don’t have any particular animal that predicts the arrival of spring – it’s done with a simple rhyming couplet*:

If Candlemas is fair and clear, there’ll be twa winters in the year
This rhyme simply means that if the day of Candlemas itself is clear, then spring will soon come.

In Britain and Ireland, there are also reports of a similar idea, although it’s not a tradition in modern times. The idea was that if you saw a hedgehog around the start of February, it was a good sign that winter was coming to an end.

One of these traditions are in any way as well developed, lasting or much loved as the one in Pennsylvania. People are well aware that it is not going to tell them if winter will soon end. But even so, it is a great family day out, where people can have lots of fun, and distract themselves from the fact that winter is still nowhere near over.

And for the believers among you – it’s good news. The groundhog has predicted an early spring this year. Maybe, for once, he might actually get it right.

Glossary
Rodent: Small mammals like rats, mice or squirrels
Burrow: A hole dug by a small animal to live in
Find out: Discover
Shoot up: Rise dramatically in numbers
Rhyming couplet: Two lines, roughly the same length, that rhyme

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