According to tradition and lore, Groundhog Day is when you find out whether spring is on its way or whether you’ve got six more weeks before winter runs its course. Observed on February 2, the holiday involves watching a rodent pop its head out of the ground and predicting the weather based on that.
Here’s how it works: if you’ve got cloudy skies when the groundhog shows up, then you can expect an early spring. If it’s sunny, then the groundhog sees its shadow and heads back into its burrow to keep up the hibernation, and winter sticks around for another six weeks.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. According to the National Centers for Climatic Information, the groundhogs get it right about 40% of the time. Still, this is a holiday about traditions, not accuracy. So to learn the full origin of Groundhog Day—linguistically and historically—read on.
Origin of the word
“Groundhog” is a compound word, and the two words that make it up give a pretty clear explanation of what it is. “Ground” means the solid surface of the Earth. Makes sense: that’s where groundhogs hang out. A “hog” is a hoofed animal, and the word is most often associated with pigs. The hefty oinkers we now think of as hogs may not be exactly twins of the rodent we call the “groundhog,” but the latter’s turned-up snout, tendency to burrow, and usually pudgy shape might have led to the use of “hog” to describe it.
If you’re not convinced by the “hog” connection, you’re not alone. Before the word “groundhog” became widely accepted, other names for the animal were also used. The most common were “whistlepig,” because of the sound they make when frightened, and “land beaver,” because of their resemblance to those flat-tailed dam builders who live in the water.
There’s also “woodchuck,” which is still used by the Brits. Even though a woodchuck can, in theory, “chuck wood,” the word actually comes from otchok or wejak, words for the animal in Algonquian (a group of North American Indian languages).
But back to groundhogs. The first known appearance of the word “groundhog” was in 1784. Less than a decade after American Independence, settlers in the United States were getting to know the lay of the land around them—including the wildlife. Over the next decades, they developed traditions and celebrations involving those critters.
Origin of the holiday
Differing accounts trace Groundhog Day to the 1840s, 1870s, or (more officially) 1887. Before any of those dates, the Christian holiday Candlemas was celebrated on February 2. Over time, and specifically in German immigrant settlements in Pennsylvania, this day came to be associated with the groundhog, too.
Burrowing through the dirt to find the earliest records of the celebration, here’s what we find:
In 1841, a storekeeper’s diary in Morgantown, Pennsylvania included the following:
Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.
Thirty years later, Maximillian Schele de Vere wrote a book called Americanisms: The English of the New World. In it, he explained:
Candlemas is known as Ground-hog Day, for on that day the ground-hog comes annually out of his hole, after a long winter nap, to look for his shadow.
Even before our friends the groundhogs got involved, Candlemas was associated with predicting when spring would come. An old English song contained the lyrics:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight.
Isn’t history-hunting fun? Now we’re getting somewhere.
Things got official in 1887, when the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania started referring to a local groundhog as their official meteorologist. The tradition has only grown from there. Officially, the historical hog is named “Punxsutawney Phil,” though groundhogs of other names have also made predictions over the years.
How to celebrate today
Punxsutawney is the official home of the groundhog who has made February 2 famous, and Gobbler’s Knob is the hill where the annual shadow-observing ceremony takes place. Punxsutawney Phil is famous in his own right, but he skyrocketed to greater fame with the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray.
After the movie’s success, Gobbler’s Knob has seen an annual influx of tourists numbering up to 30,000. Not bad for an old tradition—thanks a bunch, Hollywood.
In addition to inspiring a film and spawning a hot tourist trap, Groundhog Day has kept up with the times in other ways. If you’re curious about what Punxsutawney Phil will say about the springtime this year but can’t make it to the Gobbler’s Knob festivities, you can text “Groundhog” to 247365 to find out whether you can pack away the layers.
Whether you make the trek to Gobbler’s Knob, send Phil a friendly text, or just stick your hand out the window to feel the temperature until it finally feels like spring, now you know the history of the groundhog and his weather wisdom.