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How Did Groundhog Day Start? And How Does It Work?

Michel Rathwell - Flickr / Anthony Quintano - Wikimedia

We like to joke that a lot of American traditions must seem strange to outsiders, but none are quite as unusual as Groundhog Day.

Every year on February 2, Americans wait anxiously for a rodent to step out of his burrow and forecast the weather. Even by our standards it's a bizarre ritual, and some people who grew up marking Groundhog Day still have a few questions about the holiday.

Why do we celebrate it in the first place? And do the groundhog's predictions actually prove true?

Punxsutawney Phil
Can Punxsutawney Phil actually predict the weather?Punxsutawney Phil - Facebook

It turns out the odd holiday's history has more to do with centuries-old European traditions than furry prognosticators.

At the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, Christians marked the holiday of Candlemas. Tradition held that if Candlemas day was bright, winter weather would stick around. But if Candlemas was cloudy, it was supposed to signal spring was arriving early.

The same tradition (supposedly) applies to Groundhog Day. While the holiday is the invention of a Pennsylvania newspaper editor named Clymer Freas, it has roots in local Pennsylvania Dutch (German) superstitions that connect back to Candlemas.

Candlemas
Candlemas, the original Groundhog Day, marked Jesus' presentation at the temple.The National Gallery, London - Wikimedia

Legend says the groundhog will run into his burrow when it's sunny outside and he sees his shadow, meaning it will stay cold. If he stays outside, it's supposed to be cloudy, meaning spring will come soon.

Before groundhogs became the focus of the holiday, native Germans used badgers and even hedgehogs to predict the weather instead.

But can a four-legged critter actually predict the weather? That depends on what you mean by "predict."

Punxsutawney Phil
America loves Phil, but his predictions are not so reliable.Punxsutawney Phil - Facebook

Since 1988, Punxsutawney Phil - the Pennsylvanian groundhog who is the country's go-to rodent for the holiday - has predicted the weather correctly 14 times and incorrectly 17 times.

He was "wrong" just last year, when his prediction that there would be six more weeks of cold winter weather didn't pan out.

With that shoddy track record, NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) insists the groundhog isn't a dependable source for weather predictions.

Records from the government bureau dating back to 1887 also show that Phil has a favorite prediction: he's seen his shadow 104 times, and only predicted an early start to spring a measly 18 times.

This year's forecast from the National Weather Service predicts cloudy skies on Saturday, so it's possible this could be the rare year where Phil predicts warmer weather.

You know, if you actually believe in that sort of thing.

[H/T: USA Today, NOAA]

Do you watch for Punxsutawney Phil's prediction each year?

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