OTD in History… February 2, 1887, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania celebrates first Groundhog Day

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Source: National Geographic

On this day in history February 2, 1887, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania locals at Gobbler’s Knob celebrate the first Groundhog Day in America. For the first time, German immigrants brought their tradition of badgers predicting how much longer winter would last based on if they saw their shadow to America and with the local groundhog. If it would be sunny and the animal saw, his shadow there would be six more weeks of winter, if it was cloudy and he did not see his shadow spring would come early. The seemingly secular holiday and folklore tradition occurring at the midway point of winter began as a pagan holiday that evolved to a Christian tradition and the national weather holiday observed today in the United States and Canada. As Anthropologist Anthony F. Aveni in his book, The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays indicates “Groundhog Day renews the age-old tension between magical divination versus hard science as a way of acquiring secure knowledge about the future.” (Aveni, 31)

In ancient times, the Celts celebrated Imbolc, which celebrated the start of spring, and later became associated with St. Brigid, the “Irish Mother Saint.” (Aveni, 37) As Aveni notes, “Moved by earth rhythms, our ancestors attributed magical powers to plants and animals that changed their behavior at key points in the year’s cycle.” (Aveni, (38) There were four points in the Celtic calendar, and February 1 marked the spring, May 1, the start of summer, August 1, the end of summer, and November 1, now All Souls Day, the start of winter and the dark season.

With the spread of Christianity, the holiday developed into Candlemas, a “feast commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the holy temple in Jerusalem,” the day of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. The Christian celebration on February 2 revolves around the New Testament story from the Gospel according to Luke, where Mary came to the Temple forty days after giving birth to Jesus to “offer a sacrifice” and be purified. Simeon and the prophetess Anna as Aveni writes, “recognized and publicly proclaimed him as the savior, not only of the Jews but of all mankind.” (Aveni, 35) February 2 became the Christian Feast of the Purification. The feast had roots in Roman times, where the name of the month February from the word Februa to purify, to cleanse for spring.

Because lighting candles was part of the ceremony and for the feast to last into the night, it became Candlemas, “a festival of lights, the blessing of candles,” because Simeon called Christ “the light to lighten the Gentiles.” (Aveni, 35) By February in Northern Europe, the days were becoming longer. At Candlemas, the clergy distributed blessed candles for the winter the length of the candles determined how long or short winter last more. Candlesmas proverbs linked the holiday with the weather, weather prediction and the length of the remaining winter. If it was sunny on Candlemas they believed that winter would last another 40 days. The holiday was also rooted in superstition; the candle light was used to ward off the devil, evil spirits and bad luck.

Although Henry VIII allowed Candlemas after the Protestant Reformation, he did not want its association with superstition only with the original Christian meaning of Jesus as light. By the eighteenth century, the holiday went uncelebrated. (Aveni, 35) Instead, in Germany, they translated the tradition to badgers and small animals seeing their shadows. The link between Candlemas and the badger was this couplet according to Aveni, “The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day and when he finds it’s snowing, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining, he draws back into the hole.” In France and Spain the legend included bears and wolfs and then the badger or hedgehog. In the Pyrenees, Candlemas was the “ceremony of the bear,” his awakening from hibernation was supposed to make spring come faster. The bear had special meaning, he was consider an ancestor to humans, had warrior powers, could ward off evil and spirits, while the Scandinavians believed people could turn into bears.

After immigrating to America and primarily Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Dutch, Deutsch adapted their tradition to use the local groundhog or woodchuck. The “fat and squat” animal has lengths of 1 ½ to 2 ½ feet long and weighs about fifteen pounds, and are considered the laziest of their kind. They live at the edge of the forest and “open land,” they eat grass, leaves often stealing crops from farms” they burrow a hole in the ground living there and during the spring, summer and fall only stay about “100 yards” from their quarters. At the end of September or beginning of October they hibernate curling themselves up in their hole where their body temperature and heart beat go drastically down. They only wake to a drastic drop in temperature and the process of waking up resembles a rebirth. (Aveni, 33–34)

Farmers have long been able to predict the weather by observing the behavior of their animals; this practical logic is part of the realism of the tradition, although the groundhog is not often right in his predictions. As Aveni points out, “Even if support stats for each proverb’s validity may not be there, a fair share of the population continues to believe that weather wisdom extends far beyond the collective community of TV talking heads and that some people and animals are more weatherwise than others.” (Aveni, 32)

The first official Groundhog Day was newspaper editor Clymer Freas’ idea and he convinced some local groundhog hunters and businessmen to make the tradition official. In 1899, they formed the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. The first record of Groundhog Day was in 1886, when the local paper Punxsutawney Spirit reported, “up to the time of going to press, the beast has not seen its shadow.” The first official Groundhog Day was in 1887 at Punxsutawney Elks Lodge, where each September they held a ground hog hunt and served its meat at the “Groundhog Feast.” Each February 2, the groundhog watchers dressed up with top hats and went to Gobbler’s Knob in the Allegheny foothills where the ground hogs hibernated. They brought white flags to signal if the groundhog saw his shadow or not. According Aveni afterward the club “would get together for the Hibernating Governors’ official report.” (Aveni, 30)

Ten years later, on the opposite side of the state in Quarryville in Lancaster County a group created the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge and “proclaimed their town the only authentic groundhog watchers’ haven.” They claimed the club in Punxsutawney was only trying to sell cookbooks. The club included an official creed that they “believe in the wisdom of the groundhog… We rejoice that he can, and does foretell with absolute accuracy the weather condition.” (Aveni, 30) Although Quarryville claim, their groundhog is right 90 percent of the time the weather bureau put it more at 28 percent, while National Geographic discounts the whole tradition. Now the tradition includes singing their official song “Today the Groundhog comes” at the local pub to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, they still celebrate Groundhog Day complete with the Inner Circle “wearing top hats and conducting the official proceedings in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, and speaking to the ground hog Punxsutawney Phil in “Groundhogese.” The largest ceremony Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania attracts 40,000 people each year although Phil is only 40 percent right in his predictions according to the National Climatic Data Center. Although Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania brought the ancient European celebration to North America, in the years since 1887, many cities across the continent have adopted groundhogs of their own trying to determine if their region will see an early spring.

In Ohio, they have Buckeye Chuck, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, the “Groundhog Capital of the World” has Jimmy, Western New York, Dunkirk Dave, Staten Island has Chuck. In the South where the winter is shorter regardless, Georgia has Beauregard Lee and Virginia Rebel Robert, and Raleigh, NC, has Sir Walter Wally. While Canada where the winter will last six more weeks regardless of the groundhog prediction. Wiarton, Ontario has Wiarton Willie, in the east, Nova Scotia has Shubenacadie Sam, and in 2009, Quebec added a groundhog to celebrate Jour de la Marmotte. As Aveni observes, “What I find interesting about Groundhog Day, in addition to our popular faith in the power of animals, is the persistent belief that events transpiring in a brief span of time foretell what will arise over longer periods in the future.” (Aveni, 34)

SOURCES AND READ MORE

Aveni, Anthony F. The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896.” She is a journalist, librarian and historian and a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education and political journalism.