Every year on February 2, crowds gather at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to watch a groundhog emerge for the day. You know the drill—if he sees his shadow, bad news: There will be six more weeks of winter. But if he doesn’t see a shadow, spring is right around the corner.
In reality, groundhogs don’t make the best meteorologists, and poor Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t have a great track record (as of 2016, he’d made the right call just 39 percent of the time, according to Stormfax). So how did the bizarre tradition of Groundhog Day get its start?
The roots of Groundhog Day aren’t as random as they might seem. The beginning of February marks the halfway point between winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) and spring equinox (when night and day are about the same length). Pagans would celebrate February 1 or 2 with a festival of light to mark the start of spring. Gaelic legend says that if the goddess Cailleach wanted a long winter, she’d make the day bright so she’d have sunlight to gather more firewood. But a dreary day she’d stayed in because spring was on its way.
Medieval Christians adapted the festival and handed out candles. The feast day falls 40 days after Christmas, marking the end of the period when Jewish tradition would have considered Jesus’ mother unclean after giving birth. (Learn about the surprising histories behind your favorite Christmas traditions.) She would have been allowed to worship in the Temple again, so February 2 is also considered the day that baby Jesus would have been presented there for the first time. One old English song connects the day to the weather:
“If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.”
Eventually, Europeans started looking to animals’ hibernation patterns on Candlemas to predict the weather. Some watched to see if bears would come out of their dens, while the English looked for hedgehogs, and the French waited for marmots.
Germans, whose tradition said a badger would walk out of its hole if there was snow but retreat back inside if the sun was out, brought the custom to the United States. The Pennsylvania Dutch gave it their own twist by replacing badgers with groundhogs, probably because the hibernating animals were so common in the Keystone State.
In 1887, watching for Punxsutawney Phil became an official event. Since then, other cities have started looking to their own groundhogs, like New York’s Staten Island Chuck and Georgia’s General Beauregard Lee. Whichever furry forecaster is your trusted favorite, cross your fingers for a speedy, shadow-free spring.
Check out these 16 mind-blowing facts you never knew about Groundhog Day.