The observance of Groundhog Day in the United States first occurred in German communities in Pennsylvania, according to known records.
The earliest mention of Groundhog Day is an entry on February 2, 1840, in the diary of James L. Morris of Morgantown, in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, according to the book on the subject by Don Yoder. This was a Welsh enclave but the diarist was commenting on his neighbors who were of German stock.[a][b]
The first reported news of a Groundhog Day observance was arguably made by the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in 1886:[c] “up to the time of going to press, the beast has not seen its shadow”. However, it was not until the following year in 1887 that the first Groundhog Day considered “official” was commemorated there, with a group making a trip to the Gobbler’s Knob part of town to consult the groundhog. People have gathered annually at the spot for the event ever since.
Clymer Freas (1867–1942)[d] who was city editor at the Punxsutawney Spirit is credited as the “father” who conceived the idea of “Groundhog Day”.[e] It has also been suggested that Punxsutawney was where all the Groundhog Day events originated, from where it spread to other parts of the United States and Canada.
The Groundhog Day celebrations of the 1880s were carried out by the Punxsutawney Elks Lodge. The lodge members were the “genesis” of the Groundhog Club formed later, which continued the Groundhog Day tradition. But the lodge started out being interested in the groundhog as a game animal for food. It had started to serve groundhog at the lodge, and had been organizing a hunting party on a day each year in late summer.
The chronologies given are somewhat inconsistent in the literature. The first “Groundhog Picnic” was held in 1887 according to a book for popular reading by an academic, but given as post-circa-1889 by a local historian in a journal. The historian states that around 1889 the meat was served in the lodge’s banquet, and the organized hunt started after that.
Either way, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was formed in 1899, and continued the hunt and “Groundhog Feast”, which took place annually in September. The “hunt” portion of it became increasingly a ritualized formality, because the practical procurement of meat had to occur well ahead of time for marinating. A drink called the “groundhog punch” was also served.[f] The flavor has been described as a “cross between pork and chicken”. The hunt and feast did not attract enough outside interest, and the practice discontinued.
The largest Groundhog Day celebration is held in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where crowds as large as 40,000 gather each year (nearly eight times the year-round population of the town). The average draw had been about 2,000 until the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, which is set at the festivities in Punxsutawney, after which attendance rose to about 10,000. The official Phil is pretended to be a supercentenarian, having been the same forecasting beast since 1887. In 2019, the 133rd year of the tradition, the groundhog was summoned to come out at 7:25 am on February 2, but did not see its shadow. Fans of Punxsutawney Phil awaited his arrival starting at 6:00 a.m., thanks to a live stream provided by Visit Pennsylvania. The live stream has been a tradition for the past several years, allowing more people than ever to watch the animal meteorologist.
The Slumbering Groundhog Lodge, which was formed in 1907, has carried out the ceremonies that take place in Quarryville, Pennsylvania. It used to be a contending rival to Punxsutawney over the Groundhog Day fame. It employs a taxidermic specimen (stuffed woodchuck).
In southeastern Pennsylvania, Groundhog Lodges (Grundsow Lodges) celebrate the holiday with fersommlinge, social events in which food is served, speeches are made, and one or more g’spiel (plays or skits) are performed for entertainment. The Pennsylvania German dialect is the only language spoken at the event, and those who speak English pay a penalty, usually in the form of a nickel, dime, or quarter per word spoken, with the money put into a bowl in the center of the table.
In Midwest America, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, is the self-proclaimed “Groundhog Capital of the World”. This title taken in response to The Punxsutawney Spirit 1952 newspaper article describing Sun Prairie as a “remote two cow village buried somewhere in the wilderness…” In 2015, Jimmy the groundhog bit the ear of Mayor Jon Freund  and the story quickly went viral worldwide. The next day a mayoral proclamation absolved Jimmy XI of any wrongdoing.
Staten Island Chuck is the official weather-forecasting woodchuck for New York City. Dunkirk Dave (a stage name for numerous groundhogs that have filled the role since 1960) is the local groundhog for Western New York, handled by Bob Will, a typewriter repairman who runs a rescue shelter for groundhogs.
In Raleigh, NC, an annual event at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences includes Sir Walter Wally. According to museum officials, Wally has been correct 58% of the time vs. Punxsutawney Phil’s 39%.
In Washington, D.C., the Dupont Circle Groundhog Day event features Potomac Phil, another taxidermic specimen. From his first appearance in 2012 to 2018, Phil’s spring predictions invariably agreed with those of the more lively Punxsutawney Phil, who made his predictions half an hour earlier. In addition, Phil always predicted correctly six more months of political gridlock. However, after being accused of collusion in 2018, Potomac Phil contradicted Punxsutawney Phil in 2019 and, further, predicted two more years of political insanity.
In the American South, the General Beauregard Lee makes predictions from Lilburn, Georgia (later Butts County, Georgia). The University of Dallas in Irving, Texas has boasted of hosting the second largest Groundhog celebration in the world.
The day is observed with various ceremonies at other locations in North America beyond the United States, including Wiarton Willie of Wiarton, Ontario, and Shubenacadie Sam in Nova Scotia which, due to Nova Scotia’s Atlantic Time Zone, makes the first Groundhog Day prediction in North America. “Daks Day” (from the German dachs) is Groundhog Day in the dialect of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
In French Canada, Fred la marmotte of Val-d’Espoir has been the representative forecaster for the province of Quebec since 2009. A study also shows that in Quebec, the marmot or groundhog (siffleux) are regarded as Candlemas weather-predicting beasts in some scattered spots, but the bear is the more usual animal.[g]
The Pennsylvania Dutch were immigrants from German-speaking areas of Europe. The Germans already had a tradition of marking Candlemas (February 2) as “Badger Day” (Dachstag), where if a badger emerging found it to be a sunny day thereby casting a shadow, it foreboded the prolonging of winter by four more weeks.
Candlemas is a primarily Catholic festival but also known in the German Protestant (Lutheran) church. In folk religion, various traditions and superstitions continue to be linked with the holiday, although this was discouraged by the Protestant Reformers in the 16th century. Notably, several traditions akin to weather lores use Candlemas’ weather to predict the start of spring.
The weather-predicting animal on Candlemas was usually the badger, although regionally the animal was the bear or the fox. The original weather-predicting animal in Germany had been the bear, another hibernating mammal, but when they grew scarce the lore became altered.
The similarity to the groundhog lore has been noted for the German formula “Sonnet sich der Dachs in der Lichtmeßwoche, so geht er auf vier Wochen wieder Zu Loche” (If the badger sunbathes during Candlemas-week, for four more weeks he will be back in his hole).[h] A slight variant is found in a collection of weather lore (bauernregeln, lit. “farmers’ rules”) printed in Austria in 1823.
Groundhog as badger
So the same tradition as the Germans, except that winter’s spell would be prolonged for six weeks instead of four, was maintained by the Pennsylvanians on Groundhog Day. In Germany, the animal was Dachs or badger. For the Pennsylvania Dutch, it became the dox which in Deitsch referred to “groundhog”.[i]
The standard term for “groundhog” was grun′daks (from German Dachs), with the regional variant in York County being grundsau, a direct translation of the English name, according to a 19th-century book on the dialect. The form was a regional variant according to one 19th century source. However, the weather superstition that begins “Der Zweite Hær′ning is Grund′sau dåk. Wânn di ground îr schâtte sent … (“February second is Groundhog day. If the groundhog sees its shadow …)” is given as common to all 14 counties in Dutch Pennsylvania Country, in a 1915 monograph.[j]
In The Thomas R. Brendle Collection of Pennsylvania German Folklore, Brendle preserved the following lore from the local Pennsylvania German dialect:
Wann der Dachas sei Schadde seht im Lichtmess Marye, dann geht er widder in’s Loch un beleibt noch sechs Woche drin. Wann Ilchtmess Marye awwer drieb is, dann bleibt der dachs haus un’s watt noch enanner Friehyaahr. (When the groundhog sees his shadow on the morning of February 2, he will again go into his hole and remain there for six weeks. But if the morning of February 2 is overcast, the groundhog will remain outside and there will be another spring.)
The form grundsow has been used by the lodge in Allentown and elsewhere. Brendle also recorded the name “Grundsaudag” (Groundhog day in Lebanon County) and “Daxdaag” (Groundhog day in Northampton County).
The groundhog was once also known by the obsolete Latin alias Arctomys monax. The genus name signified “bear-rat”. The European marmot is of the same genus and was formerly called Arctomys alpinus. It was speculated that the European counterpart might have lore similar to the groundhog attached to it.[k]
Simpler Candlemas lore
The German version, with the introduction of the badger (or other beasts), was an expansion on a more simple tradition that if the weather was sunny and clear on Candlemas Day people expected winter to continue. The simpler version is summarized in the English (Scots dialect) couplet that runs “If Candlemas is fair and clear / There’ll be twa winters in the year”,[l][m] with equivalent phrases in French and German. And the existence of a corresponding Latin couplet has been suggested as evidence of the great antiquity of this tradition.[n]
In fact, the Christian Candlemas itself was an assimilation of the Roman rite for the goddess Februa with a procession on February 2, to honor her, according to Yoder. The Roman calendar, in turn, had Celtic origins. Candlemas concurs with Imbolc, one of the Celtic ‘cross-quarter days‘, the four days which marked the midpoints between solstice and equinox.
British and Gaelic calendars
Scholar Rhys Carpenter in 1946 emphasized that the Badger Day tradition was strong in Germany but absent in the British Isles, and he referred to this as a reason that the U.S. Groundhog Day was not brought by immigrants from these places.
There did exist a belief among Roman Catholics in Britain that the hedgehog predicted the length of winter, or so it has been claimed, but without demonstration of its age, in a publication by the Scotland-born American journalist Thomas C. MacMillan in 1886, and American writer/journalist Samuel Adams Drake‘s book published in 1900.[o]
In the Gaelic calendar of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, Brigid’s Day (February 1) is a day for predicting the weather. While in Scotland the animal that heralds spring on this day is a snake, and on the Isle of Man a large bird, in Ireland folklorist Kevin Danaher records lore of hedgehogs being observed for this omen:
In Irish folk tradition St. Brighid’s Day, 1 February, is the first day of Spring, and thus of the farmer’s year. … To see a hedgehog was a good weather sign, for the hedgehog comes come out of the hole in which he has spent the winter, looks about to judge the weather, and returns to his burrow if bad weather is going to continue. If he stays out, it means that he knows the mild weather is coming.
In Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney Phil has become a popular tradition. On February 2, people within the city will gather to find out whether or not Phil’s shadow is revealed. With that, he will allegedly determine whether spring will soon begin by not seeing his shadow, or if winter will ensue for six more weeks.
Punxsutawney Phil’s statistics are kept by Pennsylvania’s Groundhog Club which cares for the animal. Phil has predicted 103 forecasts for winter and just 17 for an early spring. Most assessments of Phil’s accuracy have given accuracy lower than would be expected with random chance, with Stormfax Almanac giving an estimate of 39%, and meteorologist Tim Roche of Weather Underground giving a 36% accuracy rate between 1969 and 2016 (a range chosen because local weather data was most reliable from 1969 onward) and a 47% record in that time span when predicting early spring. The National Centers for Environmental Information, using a basic metric of above-normal temperatures for early spring and below-normal temperatures for more winter, placed Punxsutawney Phil’s accuracy at 40% for the ten-year period preceding 2019. Other poor results from the analysis are reported by the Farmer’s Almanac (which itself has been known for forecasts of questionable accuracy) as “exactly 50 percent” accuracy, and The National Geographic Society reporting only 28% success. But a Middlebury College team found that a long-term analysis of temperature high/low predictions were 70% accurate, although when the groundhog predicted early spring it was usually wrong. Canadian meteorologist Cindy Day has estimated that Nova Scotia’s “Shubenacadie Sam” has an accuracy rate of about 45% compared to 25% for Wiarton Willy in Ontario.
Part of the problem with pinning down an accuracy rate for the groundhog is that what constitutes an early spring is not clearly defined. Assessments of the accuracy of other groundhogs such as Staten Island Chuck do use an objective formula (in Chuck’s case, a majority of days that reach 40 °F (4 °C) in New York City between Groundhog Day and the March equinox).
Prediction based on an animal’s behavior used to be given more credence in the past when stores of food became scarce as winter progressed.
One theory states that the groundhog naturally comes out of hibernation in central Pennsylvania in early February because of the increasing average temperature. Under this theory, if German settlement had been centered further north, Groundhog Day would take place at a later date. However, the observed behavior of groundhogs in central New Jersey was that they mostly come out of their burrows in mid-March, regardless of Groundhog Day weather.
In Croatia and Serbia, Orthodox Christians have a tradition that on February 2 (Candlemas) or February 15 (Sretenje, The Meeting of the Lord), the bear will awaken from winter dormancy, and if it sees (meets) its own shadow in this sleepy and confused state, it will get scared and go back to sleep for an additional 40 days, thus prolonging the winter. Thus, if it is sunny on Sretenje, it is a sign that the winter is not over yet. If it is cloudy, it is a good sign that the winter is about to end.
Similarly in Germany, on the 27 June, they recognize the Seven Sleepers’ Day (Siebenschläfertag). If it rains that day, the rest of summer is supposedly going to be rainy. As well, in the United Kingdom, the 15th of July is known as St. Swithin’s day. It was traditionally believed that, if it rained on that day, it would rain for the next 40 days and nights.