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A Brief History of Groundhog Day

January 31st, 2013 Seasonal

It's kind of amazing that the myth behind Groundhog Day came into fruition. For many people, common sense would indicate that if a lovable woodland critter such as a groundhog - nicknamed "Punxsutawney Phil" for the occasion - sees his shadow, it shouldn't change when a season starts.

However, Groundhog Day has, in fact, been celebrated in different forms throughout most of recorded history. As adorable as groundhogs can be, they're really only a relatively recent addition to the unofficial holiday we celebrate on February 2 every year.

The History Channel explains that ancient Celtic people hosted a festival known as Imbolc to commemorate the beginning of spring every year. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club explains that, even then, the behavior of certain animals during the festival was said to reflect how much longer winter would last.

Eventually, that celebration of Imbolc evolved into Candlemas throughout Europe, right around the time a new religion called Christianity was beginning to expand in popularity and acceptance. If the weather was sunny and warm on the day of Candlemas celebration, it meant that winter would continue for another 40 days.

What's the deal with groundhogs, anyway?
But before we discuss too much more about the holiday itself, let's examine the rodent of the moment. According to National Geographic, groundhogs are actually close relatives of squirrels, and are also known as "woodchucks." After the end of their hibernation cycle in the spring, pregnant female groundhogs tend to have litters of about a dozen babies. Their favorite foods are grass, bark and other plants, which is why they are a bane of gardeners.

Also, contrary to what many people might assume, groundhogs are perfectly capable of climbing trees and swimming. Perhaps they should be called "all-terrain giant squirrels" instead of groundhogs or woodchucks.

How groundhogs entered the scene
You might be asking yourself - how did groundhogs get added to the legend of Candlemas? The History Channel explains that it relates to hibernation. Many animals who live in forests - after eating a tremendous amount during the fall and summer, crawl into their burrows to avoid the cold weather.

Hence, it is thought that if a groundhog emerges from a burrow and sees his or her shadow, the furry fellow believes it's safe to scurry about for food, and can count on spending the next several months storing up body fat for the next hibernation. If they don't see their shadows, that means it's not sunny enough to stop hibernating yet.

Punxsutawney, Penn. - the nexus of Groundhog Day
It was more than 100 years ago in a small town in Pennsylvania when the first American incarnation of Candlemas took place. The History Channel details that the original Groundhog Day was the brainchild of Clymer Freas, a newspaper editor working in conjunction with The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. On that day, the first groundhog emerged from his burrow, noticed his shadow, and more weeks of winter followed.

In modern times, Groundhog Day remains a big deal in Punxsutawney. A secret society known as the Inner Circle claims to communicate directly with groundhogs in an arcane language, and the History Channel explains that tens of thousands of people gather annually to watch the Inner Circle conduct the Groundhog Day ritual.

But do groundhogs really predict the weather?
Well, technically not, according to the National Climatic Data Center. After charting the national average temperatures that occurred each year since 1988 when compared to Punxsutawney Phil's shadow situation of that year, the agency determined that Phil didn't have any ability to forecast how warm or cold the up coming months would be. But that doesn't mean we can't still consider Groundhog Day an unofficial, fun means of telling how much more winter we have to look forward to.