Groundhog Day

Published 4:50 am Friday, February 6, 2004

By Staff
Folks are continuing to ask for more on my far north winter but with last Monday being groundhog day I'm going to wander down that path this week. Perhaps next week we'll return to Canada.
We're all familiar with Groundhog Day, when the groundhog emerges from his den and looks for his shadow. If he sees it he knows there will be six more weeks of winter so he returns to hibernation for the duration. If he doesn't see it the weather will be nice and he'll stay out to enjoy it. But where did this folklore come from? When did it start? Is there any truth to it? And why Feb. 2? We all know no self respecting groundhog is going to come out in the middle of the winter, right?
If you're willing to stretch things a bit and make some loose connections Groundhog Day is one of the oldest celebrations still in practice. Its roots go clear back to pagan times and the Scottish Celts. They celebrated Imbolog, the time half way between the winter solstice, the beginning of winter, and the spring equinox, springtime. That half way point falls roughly on Feb. 2 of our modern calendar year.
From here the details vary but in one way or another we end up in Germany. Some say the Germans picked up this concept directly from the Celts, others say a similar notion was passed on to them from invading Romans. Whatever the case may be, the Germans weren't about to pass an opportunity to party and kept the celebration alive with Candlemas Day, again celebrating winter's half way point. It was the Germans, though, that plugged in the weather prediction aspect of the sunny or cloudy day. They also started the animal shadow thing. I don't know why they had to look for an animal's shadow rather than just looking up at the sky, perhaps they were too full of grog to chance it. They used any hibernating creature from bears to badgers and hedgehogs for shadow casting.
Most of the Germans immigrating to the U.S. in the late 1700s and early 1800s settled in Pennsylvania and, of course, they brought the tradition of Candlemas with them. Many of them moved in amongst the Delaware Indians situated between the Allegheny and Susquehanna Rivers. The Indians called this area "ponksad-utenay", village of sand flies. Sand flies are the little biting bugs we call no-see-ums. The Germans corrupted this name to Punxsutawney. Being short on badgers and hedgehogs, they adopted the groundhog for their Candlemas shadow predictions.
As an aside, most of us figure the groundhog's nickname, woodchuck, has something to do with its large rodent teeth and their wood cutting abilities. You know, "How much wood can a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" The term woodchuck actually comes from the Indians as well. "Wojak" was their word for groundhogs, which they considered their ancestral grandfathers from Mother Earth.
It was a publicity ploy by the Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania newspaper editor and a Pennsylvania Congressman that broke groundhog day out of the German Candlemas celebration and made it an American tradition.On Feb. 2, 1886, they boasted far and wide of their groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary. From that day on Punxsutawney Phil has been this country's official winter prognosticator.
It was the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, that really made Punxsutawney Phil an American icon. Today's P. Phil lives in a temperature controlled house in the Punxsutawney Community Library dining on dog food and ice cream. Every Feb. 2 tens of thousands of people flock to Punxsutawney to watch the mayor rudely yank a groggy Phil from his blissful slumber.
So now the inevitable question, how accurate are P. Phil's predictions? Not good, I'm afraid. In fact, he'd best stay out of the lottery for he can't even muster a statistical average. From 1886 to the present he's only running a lousy 39 percent. Now if it were up to me I,d simply reverse the shadow prediction, bumping him up to 61 percent and restoring P. Phil's credibility. Carpe diem.
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at