Written by Maridel Reyes
Punxsutawney Phil, can you please not see your shadow this year?
With the polar vortex and weekday temperatures frigid enough to freeze beards, many of us are hoping for an early spring.
But if the nation’s most beloved groundhog sees his shadow this Feb. 2, we may be in for six more weeks of winter (or so the legend goes). And that would be all too common, considering Phil only has predicted an early spring 16 times.
If you’re curious about the folklore behind Groundhog Day, the tradition is rooted in ancient European customs. In between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, Feb. 2 often has been a significant day in history. The Celts celebrated it as Imbolc, a pagan festival marking the beginning of spring. As Christianity spread through Europe, Imbolc evolved into Candlemas, a feast commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the holy temple in Jerusalem. In certain parts of Europe, Christians believed that a sunny Candlemas meant another 40 days of cold and snow. Germans developed their own take, pronouncing the day sunny only if badgers and other animals glimpsed their own shadows. When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought the custom with them, choosing the native groundhog, which spends the winter hibernating, as the annual forecaster.
The first official Groundhog Day celebration took place on February 2, 1887, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It was the brainchild of local newspaper editor Clymer Freas, who sold a group of businessmen and groundhog hunters 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.
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, with hundreds of onlookers on hand—and millions more watching on television.
Last year, Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow, which predicted an early thaw that didn’t really come true for the Northeast and Northwest. And while it’s true that sunny winter days are associated with colder, drier air, recent studies by the National Climatic Data Center and the Canadian weather service have shown that the groundhog’s prediction accuracy rate is less than 40 percent.
Here’s hoping that Punxsutawney Phil sees warmers days ahead—and that his prediction is spot-on.