Finally a bright light at the end of a polar vortex — spring is coming early!
Punxsutawney Phil, the world-famous meteorologist/groundhog, made his annual prediction on Saturday, emerging from his burrow at 7:30 am ET unable to see his shadow. According to lore, this means spring is on its way.
But don’t go packing away your winter clothes on the recommendation of this rodent. Phil has a pretty terrible track-record on his weather predictions: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says he’s only right about 40 percent of the time.
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’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).