Photo: Michigan Language Center

The history of Groundhog Day

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Punxsutawney Phil says to expect six more weeks of winter.

In 1723, the Delaware Indians moved to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The Delawares’ considered groundhogs respected ancestors. They believed all Indians began life as animals on Mother Earth before beginning their lives as men.

When German settlers came to live in Punxsutawney in the 1700’s, they brought their customs and traditions. One of those traditions was known as Candlemas Day. During Candlemas, clergy would distribute candles that were needed for the winter. Tradition held that the longer the candles burned, the longer winter would be. Candlemas was celebrated on February 2 which was the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and deemed a means of determining how much longer winter would be. If the sun came out February 2, the citizens of Punxsutawney could expect six more weeks of winter. At some point, it was determined that an animal would cast a shadow if the sun would appear on Candlemas Day. Germans originally chose hedgehogs to predict the length of winter but quickly adopted the groundhog because they were so plentiful in Pennsylvania.

The first official Groundhog Day was celebrated in the United States and Canada in 1887. Today, Punxsutawney Phil is cared for by members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club inner circle. This club is responsible for planning the annual Groundhog Day ceremony.  Inner circle members prepare two scrolls. One scroll proclaims six more weeks of winter and one proclaims an early spring. On the morning of February 2, Punxsutawney Phil emerges from his burrow on Gobblers Knob. In  “Groundhogese,” the language spoken by groundhogs, he declares whether he has or has not seen his shadow. The president of the inner circle, the only one who can “interpret” Phil’s language, makes Phil’s proclamation known to the world.

Unfortunately, Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t have the greatest track record. Afterall, what do groundhogs really know about making weather predictions? He has only been correct about 39% of the time since 1887.

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