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It’s Groundhog Day! Does it Matter?

Once again, it’s the day when we ask a large rodent to predict the weather for us. Let’s do the math. It’s February 2. Six weeks will take us to the middle of March. We’re in Michigan! Of course winter isn’t over!

That said, the history of this strange tradition is interesting. See below some information liberally plagiarized, er, researched, from a couple of websites. (Links below.) Enjoy!

The History of Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is observed in the United States and Canada on February 2 of every year. It derives from the Pennsylvania Dutch superstition that if a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day and sees its shadow, it will retreat to its den and winter will go on for six more weeks; if it does not see its shadow, spring will arrive early.

Why February 2?

Falling midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, February 2 is a significant day in several ancient and modern traditions. The Celts, for instance, celebrated it as Imbolc, a pagan festival marking the beginning of spring. As Christianity spread through Europe, the timing and themes of Imbolc coincided with Candlemas, a feast commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the holy temple in Jerusalem (and the official end of the Epiphany season).

Traditionally on this day, Christians would take their candles to their local church to be blessed and then used for the rest of the year. The use of candles on the Christian Candlemas was inspired by the Roman rite for the goddess Februa (for whom “February” is named), in which a procession of candles took place on February 2.

In certain parts of Europe, Christians believed that a sunny Candlemas meant another 40 days of cold and snow. Several traditions that are part of weather lore use the weather at Candlemas to predict the start of spring. One popular English folk song of the time included these lyrics:

If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come, Winter, have another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Go, Winter, and come not again.

Germans developed their own take on the Candlemas legend, pronouncing the day sunny only if badgers and other small animals glimpsed their own shadows. The original weather-predicting animal in Germany had been the bear, another hibernating mammal, but when they grew scarce, the badger was substituted. When German immigrants settled Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought the custom with them, choosing the native groundhog as the annual forecaster.

Groundhog Day in the United States

The first Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney was the brainchild of local newspaper editor Clymer Freas, who sold a group of businessmen and groundhog hunters — known collectively as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club — on the idea. The men trekked to a site called Gobbler’s Knob, where the inaugural groundhog became the bearer of bad news when he saw his shadow.

The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was formed in 1899, and continued the hunt and "Groundhog Feast", which took place annually in September. The "hunt" portion of it became increasingly a ritualized formality, because the practical procurement of meat had to occur well ahead of time for marinating. A drink called the "groundhog punch" was also served. The flavor has been described as a "cross between pork and chicken". The hunt and feast did not attract enough outside interest, and the practice was discontinued.

Nowadays, the yearly festivities in Punxsutawney are presided over by a band of local dignitaries known as the Inner Circle. Its members wear top hats and conduct the official proceedings in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. (They supposedly speak to the groundhog in “Groundhogese.”)

Accuracy of Predictions

Although the tradition remains popular in the 21st century, studies have found no consistent association between a groundhog seeing its shadow and the subsequent arrival time of spring-like weather. While sunny winter days are indeed associated with colder, drier air, studies by the National Climatic Data Center and the Canadian weather service have yielded a success rate of around 50 percent for Punxsutawney Phil. Staten Island Chuck (aka Charles G. Hogg), on the other hand, is reportedly accurate almost 80 percent of the time.



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