Groundhog Day is celebrated on Feb. 2 to predict whether or not there will be an early spring. If the groundhog sees his shadow, that means there will be six more weeks of winter; if his shadow is not visible, spring is on its way. This event was brought to the United States by German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania during the 18th and 19th centuries. It evolved from early European traditions dating back centuries from pagan and Christian festivals.
The premise of Groundhog Day is most closely associated with Candlemas Day which is also Feb. 2. Before Christianity, this was known as the Feast of Lights because it was the halfway point of winter between the shortest day of the year and the spring equinox. It celebrated the sun getting stronger as winter faded.
Pagan rituals celebrate the significance of Feb. 2 with the holiday known as Imbolc. This marks the middle of the dark half of the year and is when the seeds of the coming spring begin to stir and take root. This festival honors the Celtic fire goddess, Brigit, who represents healing, midwifery and poetry. The ground is still frozen yet from it, early signs of new growth appear. These traditions are similar to the idea behind Groundhog Day.
The early Christians also acknowledged Feb. 2 as the middle of winter. Candles that were to be used in the coming year were blessed. This became known as the Festival Day of the Candles. The Celtic goddess Brigit was later named St. Brigit by the church and her day is celebrated on Feb. 1.
Early Romans would light candles to drive away evil spirits throughout the winter months. The Teutons or Germans added to that idea by thinking that if the sun appeared on Candlemas Day, then an animal would cast a shadow which would predict the “Second Winter.” The animal of choice was the hedgehog.
When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, they found groundhogs instead of European hedgehogs. Since the two resembled each other, the settlers decided the groundhog was wise and sensible. If it saw its shadow, it would go back underground. Early Groundhog Day observances were done in the woods but in 1886, the newspaper, Punxsutawney Spirit, printed news about this now annual event.
The normally small town of Punxsutawney, PA receives approximately 30,000 visitors for the Groundhog Day festivities. They wait, in the early morning hours, for the famous Punxsutawney Phil to make an appearance at Gobbler’s Knob. The day is filled with traditions ranging from pancake breakfasts to a festival of local artists and the Punxsy Museum that explores the Native American history of the area and offers events for children. The 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, will be shown at 10:00 a.m.
Groundhog Day may have evolved from various early traditions, but it has become its own unique festival. The legend and history of this day are protected, told and re-told by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. A week-long festival expands to neighboring communities. The weather forecasting groundhog is a celebrity regardless of the outcome of his predictions.
By: Cynthia Collins
Groundhog Day History