Why is Groundhog Day? How did it start? And who is Punxatawney Phil?

Image via Columbia Pictures

Just when you think the holidays are over, that last-minute favorite American holiday that you always forget to plan for pops up its head and reminds you…that it’s probably — statistically — going to remain cold for a while longer. That’s right, folks, another Groundhog Day is upon us.

So, now that we all have enough time to prepare, just what, exactly, is Groundhog Day? Does it really have anything to do with the weather, or are we just giving the city of Punxatawney, Pennsylvania airs? Why are we celebrating this weird ceremony every second of February?

Well, first of all, it’s no coincidence that Punxatawney is the center of the action in the cult favorite hit Groundhog Day and its holiday namesake. Groundhog Day has its roots in the Pennsylvania Dutch superstition that if a groundhog emerging on the day sees its shadow and retreats back to its den, winter will last six more weeks. Conversely, if the rodent in question does not spy its shadow and roams about, we’re in for an early sp[ring. Perhaps counterintuitive, a shadow would only be seen on a clear day, while an overcast second would mean no shadow would be available for viewing.

The animal in question used to be a badger back in the old country. German lore held that Feb. 2, or Candlemas, was “Badger Day,” and if the Badger in question saw its shadow, a longer winter could be expected. The old saying went, “Sonnt sich der Dachs in der Lichtmeßwoche, so geht er auf vier Wochen wieder zu Loche” or “If the badger sunbathes during Candlemas-week, for four more weeks he will be back in his hole,” according to an 1823 Austrian almanac.

Once the tradition traveled across the Atlantic, the weather prediction lengthened by another two weeks, and the predictive animal became a groundhog. The switch may be due to the similarity of the German for Badger, “dachs” and the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, Deitsch, word for groundhog, “dox.”

The earliest mention of any kind of official Groundhog Day dates to Feb. 2, 1840, in a local farmer’s diary. The first public mention was undeniably Punxatawney’s own newspaper, the Punxatawney Spirit, in 1886. Clymer Freas, the Spirit‘s editor, conceived of the celebration. Punxatawney remains the heart of the holiday today, throwing the largest Groundhog Day celebration in the world every Feb. 2. Crowds have reached up to 40,000 attendees – shooting up from a bare handful of 2,000 attendees or so prior to the release of the classic Groundhog Day movie featuring Bill Murray.

The town maintains the conceit that Phil aka Punxatawney Phil, the groundhog responsible for the duties of the festivity, is the very same Phil that was honored at the original celebration of 1887 – making Phil over 125 years old. So far, no one has attempted to refute the claim. Whatever his age, Phil, or at least his namesake, came out last Feb. 2 at 7:25 but and, unlike the previous year, did indeed see his shadow.

So, how accurate is all this? Well, according to the records kept by Pennsylvania’s Groundhog Club, the organization that cares for Phil, the meteorologist/rodent has predicted 103 long winter forecasts and 17 early spring forecasts. Stacked up against actual weather reports, that gives him about a 35 to 40 percent accuracy rating. Perhaps a little bit better or worse than your local weatherperson. According to Weather.com, Phil is pretty likely to see his shadow this year, so you may want to hold off packing up your cold-weather gear just yet.

If you don’t want to brave the snow to get up to Punxsutawney this year, never fear. You can watch live for free at visit.pa.com Phil Live Stream beginning at 5 a.m. on the big day.