The long, strange history of Groundhog Day has witches, magical elixirs, and a suicidal groundhog.
Groundhogs, including the famous Punxsutawney Phil, Fred la Marmotte (Quebec) and Poor Richard (York, PA), predict the weather today.
Washington, D.C., even has Potomac Phil, a STUFFED groundhog.
Still not sure how that works.
Witches, Badgers, and Bears
Celebrations of future weather existed long before groundhogs raised their heads.
The pagan witch known as Cailleach predicted the weather using firewood.
If winter was to last a long time yet, she’d make the day bright so that she could gather the best firewood.
If winter was going to end soon and Cailleach had no need of wood, she’d make the day gloomy and dark.
Another option was watching hibernators, such as the hedgehog or badger, emerge from their holes for the spring thaw.
If they did, it was a sure sign of a short winter.
Fast forward to Christianity
On Candlemas Day between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, clergy bless candles and distribute them.
The legend of Candlemas Day goes:
“For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day, so far will the snow swirl in May..”
Like Groundhog Day, if skies were sunny, people could expect a longer winter.
If the day was cloudy, warm weather was soon to come.
Even the Romans believed the first days of February were solid predictors of future weather.
The empire chose hedgehogs for their forecasts.
These traditions were imported to the United States by German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania.
German settlers substituted native groundhogs for badgers and bears and Groundhog Day was born.
In the 1880s, the unfortunate groundhogs were both the celebration and celebratory meal.
In case you’re wondering, the rodent had a flavor described by locals as “a cross between pork and chicken”.
In the 1880s, according to historian Christopher Davis, the groundhog was on the menu at the Punxsutawney Elks Lodge.
The Groundhog Club went on to host the annual Groundhog Day ceremony and a summertime groundhog hunt.
The hunt was followed by a picnic featuring a variety of groundhog dishes and a “groundhog punch”.
The punch was a combination of vodka, milk, eggs, orange juice “and other ingredients,” Davis writes.
As Phil became a star, he moved off the menu.
Punxsutawney Phil is by far the most famous groundhog.
His full title is “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.”
He texts his forecast (to sign up, text “groundhog” to 247365), updates his Facebook status and the Pennsylvania-tourism Twitter feed.
Not bad for someone supposedly born in the 19th century.
And of course, there’s the movie.
Phil’s immortality is apparently due to a life-extending elixir called “Groundhog Punch”.
Not the original version, hopefully!
But how accurate are Phil’s forecasts?
Since 1988, Phil’s predictions have only been correct about 46 percent of the time, according to USA Today.
In comparison, Staten Island Chuck’s accuracy rate of 80 percent is nearly double that of Phil’s.
In 2009, Staten Island Zoo’s Doug Schwartz told Time that Phil may be more popular, but Chuck had better numbers.
“You want accurate readings, you go to Chuck,” he told the reporter.
Members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle, who may be biased, claim Phil is correct 100 percent of the time.
The Groundhog that killed itself
An official Virgina groundhog killed itself on Groundhog Day 1954.
Maybe he really did see a shadow?
The groundhog was caged in Capitol Square so everybody could watch him make his annual Groundhog Day prediction.
But he killed himself trying to get out of his cage at the State Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Oblivious, the Byrd Field weatherman called for rather cloudy weather that day, with a chance of a light shower.