Tradition of Punxsutawney Phil

By: Neal Kisor, News Writer


On February 2nd, America and Canada celebrated one of their most coveted traditions by proudly holding up a rodent and entrusting the future to it. I am of course talking about Groundhog Day, where the titular animal tries to spot its shadow. Groans of dismay resounded for many as the most famous of the groundhogs, Punxsutawney Phil, saw his shadow, heralding in six more weeks of winter. The earliest mention of the tradition came from a diary entry dated all the way back to 1840 out of Morgantown, Pennsylvania. Since that time many cities, including New York City and Quebec, have gained their own groundhogs to predict the weather.

Many believe that Groundhog Day truly began in, where else, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Newspapers for the town began writing about how “the beast” had yet to see its shadow in 1886. 1887 marked the first “official” Groundhog Day when a group of Punxsutawney residents made their way up to Gobbler’s Knob to observe the groundhog. The event has taken place there ever since.

Punxsutawney Phil is actually a title which is passed on from groundhog to groundhog. According to the lore, Phil is supposedly well over 130 years old, and has been predicting the weather for centuries. He lives off of a special concoction that makes him immortal called “groundhog punch”. When Phil is awoken he’s taken into the caring arms of the resident of the Groundhog Club, who he communicates to in “Groundhogese”. Once the message is properly translated the president can then make the prediction public.

Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time animals have been used to predict the weather. This form of fauna-based weather-lore can be traced back far through history. Groundhog Day, however, may of had its roots in a German tradition called “Badger Day” where a badger would predict the weather and perhaps herald in four more weeks of winter. In other areas of the world, such as France and Canada, very similar traditions with wolves, bears and foxes exist. A tradition of animals predicting the weather on Candlemas, a Christian Holy Day commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, has been reported in England and Ireland as well, where the Celts believed that a hibernating animal which cast a shadow meant that winter would persist. In modern times, the humble hedgehog has taken up this role thanks to the Romans. Speaking of which, the Romans even had a tradition around Candlemas which is widely believed to be borrowed from the Celts, though theirs did not involve the use of animals, where they predicted that the fairness of the day would signal a second winter.

Naturally, a groundhog won’t truly predict the future and isn’t responsible for bringing springtime closer. Accuracy reports have shown that the groundhog is only correct around thirty percent of the time- and they seldomly herald in an early spring. But the tradition is fun, and one that is truly rooted into the culture of the whole world. The great thing about culture is that it can be borrowed and morphed. America didn’t steal from the Germans, the Germans didn’t steal from the Romans, and the Romans didn’t steal from the Celts. Each society took a tradition they found interesting and made it their own. One would not suspect the groundhog of being a flag bearer in a worldly weather-lore; yet it is, and that’s our culture. Needless to say, the tradition is still widely loved by many.