National Observance: Look to ‘Phil’ on Groundhog Day

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 2: Will the groundhog see his shadow?

Revelers nationwide will turn to a furry forecaster at sunrise this morning, out of tradition that a groundhog who sees his shadow in sunlight will retreat back to his burrow, indicating six more weeks of winter—and one who sees no shadow will emerge, signaling an early spring. Predictions vary from city to city, many of which have their own groundhog forecast, but nowhere is the humble groundhog more revered than in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where “Punxsutawney Phil” inspires a whole slew of events. (Learn more, watch Phil or win a trip to Phil’s home state at

Think Groundhog Day is a modern invention? Think again! An ancient Pagan festival known as Imbolc bears the first evidence of furry predictions, when the spotting of a badger or similar animal supposedly indicated a turn in weather during the seasonal Celtic festival. Centuries later, the Christian holiday of Candlemas was regarded as predicting a forecast, and poems emerged such as this one, from England:

If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Winter will not come again.

When German immigrants made their way to Pennsylvania, U.S., in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought their groundhog traditions with them—and thus, Punxsutawney Phil was born! (Wikipedia has details.) Today, Groundhog Lodges in Pennsylvania hold social events on Feb. 2 where Pennsylvania German dialect is the only language allowed; those who speak English pay a penalty in nickels, dimes and quarters. Annually, Punxsutawney, Pa, draws tens of thousands of visitors on Groundhog Day—a custom that began in 1887, when a local newspaper editor declared the city’s groundhog the “one and only” predictor.

The Western Christian Candlemas has customarily predicted weather in much of Europe and America during recent centuries, but in Serbia—an Orthodox Christian country—Feb. 2 brings The Meeting of the Lord, when it’s believed that a bear who sees his shadow will retreat and bring 40 more days of winter. (Keep in mind that Serbia follows the Julian calendar, where Feb. 2 falls on the Gregorian Feb. 15.)

Unfortunately, the Western groundhog’s predictions don’t hold the most accurate track record: While Groundhog Day organizers claim its rodent’s forecasts are accurate 75-90 percent of the time, a Canadian study found that predictions were spot-on only 37 percent of the time. The National Climatic Data Center reports the overall accuracy rate as 61 percent.


When Don Kern of Grand Rapids, Mich. visited Punxsutawney with friends last year, he noticed the calendar of events missing one thing: a race. With no trace of even a 5K in Punxsutawney, Kern decided to begin a Groundhog Day Marathon back home—duly inspired by the Bill Murray comedy, “Groundhog Day.” (WZZM of ABC News reports.) In its inaugural year, racers will run the same four miles over and over again, like the repetition in the holiday movie. Kern reports that more than 500 runners have signed up for the 2013 Marathon, for which trophies will be—brace yourself—wooden groundhogs, carved by a local artist.

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