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For years small towns in the U.S., Canada and other areas of the world have enlisted the help of furry little creatures to predict if winter weather was going to continue for another six weeks. Very few know where this tradition came from or why it is celebrated in the first place.
Groundhog day originally started out as a pagan festival originating in Ireland, called Imbolc which is a celebration of the first signs of the coming spring. Imbolc later morphed into the Christian celebration of Candlemas: a feast celebrating Jesus’ first entry into the temple of Jerusalem.
The first instance of a rodent being involved was in 18th and 19th century Germany where they decided to rely on the European Hedgehog to determine if winter would be longer. The legend went that if the hedgehog came out of its hole and saw its own shadow, then it would run back into its burrow, signifying six more weeks of winter. As to why the shadow means more winter, almost no one knows. Some speculate that it may have something to do with pleasant weather in winter being the result of cold winds coming from the arctic and cloudy weather being the product of warmer air from the tropics.
The tradition first came to America through German immigrants in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. They decided to use groundhogs instead of hedgehogs because they were plentiful and held similar characteristics to hedgehogs. Officially, the first Groundhog Day was on February 2, 1887 when a local news editor convinced the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club to help them with the idea. They later went to a place in Punxsutawney called Gobbler’s Knob where they held the first ever Groundhog Day.
The tradition is still around today in Punxsutawney and other towns around the country, though the celebration in Punxsutawney is still the most popular celebration amassing up to 30,000 spectators. The ceremony involves a group of local dignitaries called the “Inner Circle,” who plan and have final say over the festival, and who speak Dutch to the Groundhog. Phil, Punxsutawney’s “125 year-old” groundhog, only has a 39% success rate in accurately predicting the coming weather. But the celebration is a treasured local holiday that brings the community together and allows everyone to be a part of their local history.