Groundhog Day 2020: Origin and History of How the Rodent Began Predicting the Weather

Every February, people all across America wait for a large rodent named Punxsutawney Phil to tell us on Groundhog Day whether there will be six more weeks of winter. Although Phil's predictions have been hit or miss over the years, many people still anticipate watching the groundhog see or not see his shadow when he's pulled from the ground on Sunday.

Although it's one of the country's oldest (and oddest) traditions, dating all the way back to 1887, celebration of Groundhog Day didn't actually originate in the United States. In fact, the groundhog wasn't even a part of the original event that essentially inspired the day.

The idea stems from an ancient European Christian celebration known as Candlemas Day. The holiday initially was an observance of the midpoint between the winter and spring equinoxes, according to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. Religious leaders would bless candles used during the winter and pass them out to the townspeople each year on February 2. The superstition at the time was that if the weather was sunny and clear on the day the candles were distributed, the rest of winter would be long and rough. On the other hand, if the weather was cloudy and gray when people received their candles, spring was on the way.

Over time the tradition was adopted by Germans, who adapted it to include a hedgehog. If the day was sunny and the hedgehog saw his shadow, people expected more winter weather. But if conditions were the opposite and the hedgehog didn't see its shadow, spring was near.

When Germans began settling in Pennsylvania in the 1800s, they brought the tradition with them. However, they traded the hedgehog for another marmot that was more commonly found in the area: the groundhog.

History of How Animals Began Predicting Weather For Groundhog Day
A marmot sits on a rock on a mountainside above the retreating Pasterze glacier in Austria. Punxsutawney Phil, another marmot, is supposed to determine whether there will be six more weeks of winter on Groundhog Day, February 2. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Public observance of Groundhog Day was officially declared by The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper in 1886, and the first statewide celebration of Groundhog Day was held by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club at Gobbler's Knob the following year.

The event also marked the introduction of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog dubbed America's first weather-forecasting animal. When he was first pulled from the ground, he saw his shadow, resulting in a prediction of six more weeks of winter for Pennsylvania. And, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), he was right.

Of course, Groundhog Day spread beyond Pennsylvania and became a national event, which, in turn, has made Phil's predicting ability a bit harder. The NOAA says Phil has predicted the weather accurately 40 percent of the time over the past 10 years.