Witches, hedgehogs and elixirs – The strange, long history of Groundhog Day

The long, strange history of Groundhog Day includes witches, a magical elixir and the groundhog that killed himself.

Groundhog Day 2016: Punxsutawney Phil Did Not See His Shadow

Punxsutawney Phil and his mysterious Inner Circle

From the famous Punxsutawney Phil to the less-well-known Fred la Marmotte (Quebec) and intriguingly named Poor Richard (York, PA), groundhogs all over predicted the weather today. Washington, D.C., even has Potomac Phil, a stuffed groundhog, though it’s unclear how that works.

Witches, Badgers and Bears

Celebrations of future weather conditions existed long before groundhogs were involved.

In  Pagan times, the winter witch known as Cailleach gathered her firewood for the coming winter days. The story goes that if winter was to last a long time yet, she would make the day bright so that she could locate the best firewood.

If winter was going to end soon and Cailleach had no need to find wood, she’d make the day gloomy and dark. Many people also watched for serpents and burrowing animals to emerge from their holes for the spring thaw and, if they did, it was a sure sign of a short winter.

Fast forward to Christianity and Candlemas Day.

Falling between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, clergy would bless candles and pass them out to people.

The legend of Candlemas Day goes:  “For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day, so far will the snow swirl in May..”

In the 1880s, however, groundhogs served as both the celebration and the celebratory meal.  The rodent had a flavor described by locals as “a cross between pork and chicken,” according to Pennsylvania historian Christopher R. Davis.

In the 1880s, according to Davis, groundhog was the cuisine of choice at the Punxsutawney Elks Lodge. Devotees later formed the Groundhog Club, which hosted both 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” that sounds equally appetizing — a combination of vodka, milk, eggs, orange juice “and other ingredients,” Davis writes.

As Phil rose in popularity, he moved off the menu.

Groundhog Accuracy

Punxsutawney Phil is by far the most famous groundhog.  His predictions are heard around the country.  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.

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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.

But the members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle, who care for Phil and help plan the event every year, claim he 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?

This is Mr. Marmota Monax, the Virginia groundhog in 1952. Records do not indicate whether or not this is the groundhog that met a tragic end in 1954.

The groundhog was caged in Capitol Square so everybody could watch him make his annual Groundhog Day weather prediction. But he killed himself trying to get out of his cage at the State Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Hardly taking notice of his amateur competitor, the Byrd Field weatherman called for rather cloudy weather that day, with a chance of a light shower.


Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.