What is Groundhog Day? The Story Behind One Of America's Weirdest Holidays


On Saturday, tens of thousands of people will descend on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, located 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh to witness the world’s most famous fuzzy-wuzzy weather-caster, Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction: Will Old Man Winter extend his stay for six more weeks until mid-March, or will he pack up early and let spring in?

So what are the origins of this strange holiday tradition?

Groundhog Day has origins in the ancient Christian holiday of Candelmas, marking a half-way point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

According to folklore rooted in German superstition, if a hibernating groundhog becomes frightened and retreats to his lair after he sees his shadow on February 2, winter will continue for another six weeks. If, however, the groundhog emerges from his lair and fails to see his shadow, spring will arrive early.

Unfortunately, an analysis of weather data over the past 25 years reveals, “There is no predictive skill for the groundhog during the most recent years of the analysis," says the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

The center found that since 1988, Phil has been “right” 10 times and “wrong” 15 times.  Basically, only 10 times did the national average temperature for the remainder of February match the groundhog’s prediction.

For instance, last winter, Phil saw his shadow, predicting six more weeks of winter, but we had an unseasonably warm February and the warmest March in U.S. history.

Since 1886, Phil has now seen his shadow 100 times, and he hasn't seen it just 16 times, according to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's Inner Circle, which runs the event.  (There is no record of the prediction for nine times in the late 19th century.)

The tradition rose in popularity with the 1993 Bill Murray comedy, Groundhog Day, in which a weather forecaster covering the event must relive the same day over and over again. Prior to the movie, Phil was lucky to have 2,500 visitors, said Mike Johnston, vice president of the Inner Circle.

Although Phil is the most famous groundhog in the world, other forecasting groundhogs include West Virginia’s French Creek Freddie, Georgia's General Beauregard Lee, Ohio's Buckeye Chuck, North Carolina's Sir Wally Wally, Alabama's Smith Lake Jake, and New York's Staten Island Chuck (full name: Charles G. Hogg).