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Groundhog Day 2017: did Punxsutawney Phil see his shadow?

The rodent we all trust to tell us if there will be six more weeks of winter.
The rodent we all trust to tell us if there will be six more weeks of winter.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog meteorologist of central Pennsylvania, saw his shadow this morning — so, according to legend, 2017 will bring more winter weather.

But if you were enjoying those January days that felt like spring, take heart. Phil isn't a particularly accurate meteorologist, according to an analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks climate data in the US.

The last time Phil successfully predicted the weather was 2014, when he saw his shadow and both February and March had below-average temperatures. Before that, the last successful prediction was in 1999.

The roots of Groundhog Day in superstitions about bears

Every February 2, thousands of people gather on Gobbler's Knob, a hill outside town in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. They wait for hours in the pre-dawn freezing cold, and while there are bonfires and fireworks, the highlight is a brief moment when 15 men in top hats report whether a famous groundhog — the one they call the "Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators" — saw his shadow.

It's based on a very old superstition that the weather on February 2 predicts what the rest of winter will be like. On the Christian liturgical calendar, February 2 is Candlemas Day. And fear that a sunny Candlemas Day means a longer winter is widespread in folklore from throughout Europe in the form of rhyming proverbs:

  • English fishermen: "When the wind's in the east on Candlemas Day / There it will stick till the first of May."
  • An old German proverb: "The shepherd would rather see the wolf enter his stable on Candlemas Day than the sun."
  • In Scotland: "If Candlemas Day be dry and fair / the half o' winter's to come and mair [more]."

Some of these superstitions, including in Germany, England, and Eastern Europe, were linked to animals, particularly bears. The bear, which hibernates in the winter and returns to the spring, is a symbol of rebirth after the long winter. If a bear saw its shadow on Candlemas Day, the superstition went, it would return to its den, foretelling a longer winter.

As classical scholar Rhys Carpenter wrote in 1946, this alluded to hibernation as a mythical descent into death:

The bear emerging from his deathlike winter sleep, having lain as one dead, must have dwelt among the land of shades and therefore should have left his shadow behind him. If he has not done so, if an accusing shadow moves beside him in the warm spring sunlight, he has not truly been among the dead and he must go back and properly sleep his winter sleep of the full six weeks before he can finally emerge again.

This superstition changed over time with the local fauna. In Germany, the bear became a hedgehog. When Germans emigrated to Pennsylvania, the hedgehog became a groundhog.

Groundhog Day's faux mythology is a masterpiece of marketing

groundhog day clock

Bill Murray made Punxsutawney's Groundhog Day famous.

Groundhog Day's roots might be in European traditions and mythology. But the phenomenon of Punxsutawney's Groundhog Day is a creation of a force more modern than superstition: the media.

The pomp and pageantry of Groundhog Day was created by a local newspaper editor in Punxsutawney in the 1880s. The superstition that groundhogs could predict the weather had already traveled to Pennsylvania from Germany, and local newspapers printed reports on whether groundhogs saw their shadow on Candlemas.

But the idea that Punxsutawney Phil predicted the weather not just for a small town in Pennsylvania but for the entire country was the result of tireless promotion by a small-town newspaper editor in the 1880s. The Punxsutawney Spirit and the local Groundhog Club declared that Phil was the one true weather-predicting groundhog.

The accompanying ceremony, though, didn't become a national event until after television was invented. It was made famous by morning television (a live audience in Punxsutawney was first allowed in 1966) and popularized by the 1993 Bill Murray comedy (which incorrectly located the main event downtown rather than on Gobbler's Knob).

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