What is Groundhog Day?
February 2 marks Groundhog Day. While the frost is still thick on the ground in some places of the country, spring may be on the way. Despite all of the fantastic scientific methods man uses to forecast the weather, Groundhog Day always comes down to a chunky little rodent named Punxsutawney Phil, supposedly named after King Phillip.
In a small Pennsylvania town called Punxsutawney (located 84 miles northeast of Pittsburgh), a groundhog named Phil will be woken up from his winter hibernation. If he doesn’t see his shadow when he pops out of his burrow, break out the Coppertone. If he does—break out the rock salt for the driveway.
The official Groundhog Day website says there is a connection between this event and one known as Candlemas, or Candlemas Day, and this old English song:
If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come, Winter, have another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Go Winter, and come not again.
History.com adds “Groundhog Day has its roots in the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas Day, when clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter. The candles represented how long and cold the winter would be. Germans expanded on this concept by selecting an animal–the hedgehog–as a means of predicting weather. Once they came to America, German settlers in Pennsylvania continued the tradition, although they switched from hedgehogs to groundhogs, which were plentiful in the Keystone State.” The first Groundhog Day in the US was in 1887.
So, what is a groundhog?
Groundhogs are not at all related to hogs, so their compound name is only partially accurate because they do live close to the ground. The other common name for the marmots is equally confusing. Woodchucks do not chuck or throw around wood, despite the popular tongue twister that queries how much they would if they could. As burrowing rodents, they don’t have much to do with wood or trees at all. In fact, the name woodchuck is an anglicized loanword from the Algonquian word wuchak, which is a Native American language.
And, the name Punxsutawney apparently derives from a Native American name as well. In Unami (a Lenape language), Punkwsutènay translates to “town of the sandflies” or “town of the mosquitoes.” You have to admit, “Groundhog Day” is a better way for the local chamber of commerce to market the town instead of “Mosquito Capitol of Pennsylvania.”
How often does Phil predict the weather correctly?
Well, The Washington Post actually did some research and concluded that “Even though Phil’s predictions proved correct for some areas of the country, the difference in average temperatures between years he predicted an early spring (times he did not see his shadow) and years he did not (times he saw his shadow) varied by no more than a few degrees.”
So, why do we still celebrate Groundhog Day?
It seems we can thank Bill Murray for this. According to ibtimes.com and HuffPost the 1993 film “Groundhog Day” is seen as the reason behind the day’s continued popularity and celebration. In fact, the day is so popular now that other cities in the US and Canada have their own meteorological rodents. Phil has some competition.