The Very Surprising History Behind Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day has become an American tradition, wedged halfway between the Christmas and Easter. But how much do you really know about the animals who’ve shown a talent for predicting the weather? Read on for everything you need to know about the surprising origins behind Groundhog Day.

What is Groundhog Day?

Photo: Flickr/slgckgc

Like badgers and moles, groundhogs love to burrow outside, so much so that these larger squirrel relatives are frequently known as “land beavers.” And because groundhogs hibernated in their tunnels during winter only to re-emerge again in the spring, rumors eventually grew these adorable critters could also predict the weather. Now holiday legend holds that groundhogs comes looking for their shadows, and if they find them, they’ll scurry right back into their tunnels. This is a sign that we humans will have to hunker down for another 6 weeks of winter.

When Is Groundhog Day Celebrated?

Groundhog Day is celebrated every year on February 2.

How Did Groundhog Day Begin?

Photo: Flickr/ Oak Ridge National Laboratory

This winter tradition was brought to the U.S. by settlers from Germany, where badgers and hedgehogs were used to forecast the weather. But groundhogs were more common in North America, causing the German tradition to evolve into Groundhog Day. “When the Europeans came over here, they didn’t have any hedgehogs or badgers to lay the blame on, so I think the groundhog got it by being here and being a good size,” Richard Thorington, a curator of Mammals at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, told National Geographic. “He became the one to prophesize whether winter would come or not.”

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When Was The First Groundhog Day?

Photo: The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club

Groundhog Day was first celebrated in 1887, when a newspaper editor (and member of the local groundhog club) from Punxsutawney, Philadelphia, selected a local groundhog, Phil, to be the town’s resident rodent forecaster. This tradition quickly grew into an annual event that still takes place in the Pennsylvania city on February 2 every year, where thousands of people now gather at dawn to see ‘Punxsutawney Phil’ predict the weather.

How Accurate Is Punxsutawney Phil?

Not very. Punxsutawney Phil correctly predicts the arrival of spring only about 40 percent of the time, although we still think this is pretty good for a rodent. Regardless, some of Phil’s furry counterparts have a much higher success rate. According to NBC News, a NYC-based groundhog named Staten Island Chuck correctly predicts the advent of spring 80 percent of the time.

Why Are People Calling On Punxsutawney Phil To Retire?

Photo: Punxsutawney Groundhog Club

Despite the popularity of Groundhog Day, some people are demanding that Punxsutawney Phil retire. This has less to do with Phil’s hit-and-miss record and supposedly “ancient” age than concerns for the groundhog’s stress and well-being. In 2020, PETA asked the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club to replace Phil with artificial intelligence, thereby keeping tradition alive while allowing Phil to retire to an animal sanctuary somewhere. “Gentle, vulnerable groundhogs are not barometers,” said PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman. “PETA is offering the club a win-win situation: Breathe life into a tired tradition and finally do right by a long-suffering animal.”

How Do People Celebrate Groundhog Day?

Photo: Punxsutawney Groundhog Club

Every year, tens of thousands of visitors flock Pennsylvania on Feb. 2 to see Punxsutawney Phil, whose celebrity dramatically increased following the 1993 release of the Groundhog Day movie with Bill Murray. But there are plenty of ways to celebrate Groundhog Day without traveling all the way to the Keystone State. Some look for groundhogs around their own neighborhood; others stream Groundhog Day on YouTube, Hulu, or Amazon. The global pandemic also inspired Punxsutawney Phil’s handlers to sell virtual tickets to anyone who wants to watch the famous marmot predict this year’s weather from the safety of home.

How do you celebrate Groundhog Day? Let us know in the comments!

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