Groundhog Day, as we know it, began around 1887 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but its roots go back hundreds, maybe even thousands of years. The holiday has its origins in an ancient Celtic festival called Imbolc, which was held on February 1st. Imbolc was a festival for the coming spring and was halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It featured primitive meteorology techniques in an attempt to predict or control how quickly the winter would end and spring would arrive.
As Christianity swept through the British Isles, missionaries incorporated Brigid, the Celtic goddess of Imbolc, into St. Brigid of Kildare, a patron saint of Ireland. Imbolc was eventually replaced with Candlemas, a feast dedicated to St. Brigid that took place every year on February 2nd.
Candlemas was a religious holiday, but it remained an important day for weather forecasting as well. Tradition held that winter wasn’t going to end if Candlemas was sunny enough to cast shadows. However, a cloudy, shadow-free day meant spring had arrived. According to an old British saying, “If Candlemas Day be (sir) bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.”
So, where did the groundhog come from? We can thank 19th-century German immigrants and a creative editor at the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper for this twist.
Germans that settled in Pennsylvania in the 1800s brought many customs with them. One of which was the traditional practice of predicting the end of winter based on bears’ and badgers’ hibernation habits. Some Germans may have switched to groundhogs when they arrived in America, but the use of a groundhog didn’t really take off until near the end of the 19th century when local groundhog hunters caught the attention of Punxsutawney Spirit city editor, Clymer H. Freas.
Mr. Freas routinely reported on the men’s frequent groundhog hunts and barbecues for the paper. He began referring to them as the “Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.” He became so intrigued by local groundhog folklore that he eventually went on to promote Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania as home to a weather-predicting groundhog. Over time, other newspapers began reporting it, too, and Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania eventually became ground zero for groundhog meteorology, as well as the hometown of the world-renowned groundhog forecaster, “Punxsutawney Phil.”