Groundhog Day 2024

Today is Groundhog Day, the annual tradition of seeing what a groundhog says about the rest of the winter season

Happy Groundhog Day! If you live in a cold-weather state you’re likely itching to know whether the famed Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow and whether he has predicted six more weeks of winter or an early spring.

You can readily find these results but I wanted to dig a little deeper into this rather odd tradition of trusting a groundhog with our meteorological fate. It’s actually linked to the Christian holiday Candlemas which also falls on February 2.

The celebration we know and love today was first recorded in a Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, newspaper in 1886 though it’s likely the tradition of having a groundhog predict the weather had already been going on for decades before that.

6 more weeks of winter? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What Is Candlemas? Inside the February Festival of Lights

The holidays have officially come and gone but millions of people around the world continue to celebrate the season for more than a month into the New Year. Taking place annually on February 2, Candlemas is a historical Christian holiday that continues to be observed exactly 40 days after Christmas. 

In medieval England, the date was known to be the official end of Christmas and was a great feast day, according to the English Heritage organization. Today, depending on the tradition of various branches of the Christian faith the holiday often goes by other names. The Roman Catholic Church refers to the holiday as the Presentation of the Lord; in the Anglican tradition, it’s known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; and in the Greek tradition, Hypapante (translation: meeting) refers to Jesus meeting with Simeon in the Temple.

While the name of the celebration may vary, the source of inspiration remains the same: the festivities commemorate the Virgin Mary’s purification in the Temple of Jerusalem as well as her presentation of baby Jesus, her firstborn child, to God, 40 days after giving birth (as depicted in Luke 2:22 of the Bible). 

6 more weeks of winter? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On this date, Christians will often remove their Christmas decorations. Of course, a lot of people do not follow this tradition today opting to remove their Christmas decorations on the Twelfth Night which is the eve of the Epiphany. Others simply remove them when it is convenient. However, those who want to follow tradition will take their Christmas decorations down on this date.

Given that Jesus declared himself to be the light of the world in John 8:12, candles are featured prominently in the celebrations. Traditionally it’s an occasion to take candles to church to be blessed—Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, and Anglicans are particularly devout in following this tradition. The blessed candles may then be used at home for the rest of the year. 

It’s also believed that the Christian celebration may have begun as a replacement for older pagan festivities that marked the shift from winter to spring. In ancient Celtic culture, Imbolc, taking place between February 1 and 2, was considered to be the first day of spring. Celts were said to pray for the health of the soil before planting crops around this time of year as a means of honoring the goddess Brigid.

Ancient Romans honored their god Lupercus, protector of farmers and harvest time in general, by celebrating Lupercalia. More broadly, this point in time between the winter solstice (December 21) and the March equinox (March 20) makes Candlemas a handy way to mark the halfway point of winter.

Candlemas celebrations provide an opportunity to enjoy traditional dishes although they vary based on region. The Mexican tradition feature tamales while in Belgium, France, and Swiss Romandy, crepes are the highlight of the holiday feast.

…or an early spring? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The winter-blooming flower known as the snowdrop, or galanthas nivalis, goes by the nickname Candlemas Bells and is widely considered to be a symbol of the holiday. Tradition used to dictate that the flowers should be kept from the home until the holiday although eventually the belief that the flowers would purify the home overrode the earlier superstition.

Worth Pondering…

If Candlemas day be fair and bright

Winter will have another flight

If on Candlemas day it be showre and rain

Winter is gone and will not come again.

—John Ray, 1627-1705

Groundhog Day: A Break from the Freeze?

Why do we put our faith in these furry little forecasters once a year?

There will be six more weeks of winter, Punxsutawney Phil predicted as he emerged from his burrow this morning to perform his Groundhog Day duties.

It was 30 years ago when the movie Groundhog Day came out, yet it must seem like yesterday for the die-hards who anxiously await this annual prognosticator.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 20,000 visitors gathered at Gobbler’s Knob, Pennsylvania—about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburg—as members of Punxsutawney Phil’s inner circle summoned him from his tree stump at dawn to learn if he had seen his shadow, a message they said Phil communicated in groundhogese. After Phil’s prediction was announced, the crowd repeatedly chanted six more weeks!

According to folklore, spring would come early if he didn’t see it.

Winter lovers can rejoice as the legendary Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow on this Groundhog Day which means spring won’t be arriving early in 2023. And while it may seem silly to take Phil’s word for it, it turns out the majority of Americans are more likely to trust a rodent than their local meteorologist.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s according to a recent OnePoll survey of 2,000 U.S. adults which reveals that 58 percent agree that whether or not Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow on Groundhog Day determines if there will be six more weeks of winter. Moreover, more than one in four Americans “strongly agree” with this statement. Three in five believe Phil more than meteorologists, hmm.

Since COVID-19 has changed the world so drastically over the last three years, maybe it’s okay to have this one nice thing to enjoy every year—unless you hate winter, too!

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions date back to 1887. Of course, since the average lifespan of a groundhog is about six years, the name is really attached to a monolithic organization of different groundhogs that trot out once a year in Gobbler’s Knob to perform their duty.

In the words of Phil Connors from Harold Ramis’ 1993 movie Groundhog Day, “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anyway, Phil did see his shadow this morning—which means he was scared of his shadow and has run back inside his den and pronounced six more weeks of winter.

Punxsutawney Phil may be the most famous groundhog seer but he’s certainly not the only one. Groundhog Day celebrations are major events in other parts of North America.

In Canada, similar celebrations are held with Ontario’s clairvoyant rodent Wiarton Willie, Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam, and Quebec’s designated oracle groundhog Fred la Marmotte. Willie is the successor to the original Wiarton Willy who died in 2018.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fred made his prediction in Val-d’Espoir, Quebec, on the eastern edge of the Gaspé Peninsula. This Fred is still new to predicting—organizers call him Fred Junior. The previous Fred has retired.

The Groundhog Day ritual may have something to do with February 2 landing midway between winter solstice and spring equinox, but no one knows for sure.

The annual event may have its origin in a German legend about a furry rodent. Some say the tradition can be traced to Greek mythology or it could have started with Candlemas, a Christian custom named for the lighting of candles during the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One Scottish couplet summed up the superstition: “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.”

In medieval Europe, farmers believed that if hedgehogs emerged from their burrows to catch insects, it was a sure sign of an early spring.

However, when Europeans settled in eastern North America, the groundhog was substituted for the hedgehog.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On Canada’s West Coast in British Columbia, they now call on marmots like Van Island Violet who lives on Mount Washington. Like groundhogs, marmots are a type of large ground squirrel. But, like the yellow-bellied marmots of Vernon, Violet tends to be asleep on February 2; therefore, she cannot see her shadow.

This makes sense of course and highlights a danger of asking a groundhog in the first place. More winter just means a sleep-in for the marmots and who doesn’t like to sleep in?

In general, rodents don’t have a great track record when it comes to long-term forecasting.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In his book, The Day Niagara Falls Ran Dry, climatologist David Phillips cites a survey of 40 years of weather data from 13 Canadian cities which concluded that there were an equal number of cloudy and sunny days on February 2. During that time, the groundhogs’ predictions were right only 37 per cent of the time.

There are other pseudo Phils: Manitoba’s Merv is a puppet while Alberta’s Balzac Billy is a six-foot tall sunglass wearing mascot who uses his thumb to check for a shadow. Known as the Prairie Prognosticator, the groundhog signals a thumbs down if he sees his shadow or thumbs up for no shadow and an early spring.

Meanwhile, Winnipeg Wyn is a fortune-telling ambassador groundhog at Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. Instead of watching to see if Wyn sees her shadow, the rehabilitation centre said it bases its prediction on her behavior which is a more reliable indicator.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether it’s about giving us hope or really just celebrating an animal that we don’t celebrate very often, I think it’s wonderful. And, if it gets people outside for just a few minutes then that’s awesome!

Worth Pondering…

Always maintain a kind of summer, even in the middle of winter.

—Henry David Thoreau