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A Short History of Groundhog Day

Punxsutawney Phil is part of a tradition with roots that extend back thousands of years

Punxsutawney Phil, the weather prognosticating groundhog, makes his appearance during the Groundhog Day celebration at Gobblers Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. (DAVID MAXWELL/epa/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

As the sun rose on Groundhog Day today, the region’s top furry forecasters all agreed that an early spring is on the horizon. While modern meteorologists may put more faith in weather satellites and statistical data than whether or not a big rodent saw its shadow, Groundhog Day wasn’t always a silly tradition: it's actually rooted in the movements of the sun and dates back thousands of years.

Most ancient civilizations relied on the sun and the stars to tell them when to start planting crops, harvesting, or prepping for the cold winter ahead. This reliance on celestial cues evolved into traditions captured by holidays that have survived to this day.

Many cultures divided the calendar roughly in quarters by the two equinoxes (when the day and night are equal lengths) and two solstices (the longest and shortest days of the year), which fall in the middle of each season. While many people celebrated holidays around these times, including the druids, vikings, and ancient Germanic people, one notable group whose traditions sometimes linger in echoes on our modern calendars was the Celts.

These days "Celt" is most often used to refer to people from Ireland, Scotland, parts of Britain, and Brittany in France (as well as a basketball team). At one point, though, groups of Celts lived all over continental Europe from Turkey to Spain. While it is unclear exactly how much modern Celts are related to the Iron Age civilization, the culture notably left its mark on the calendar, as several of their major holidays have survived in some form into modern times. 

For the Celts, four of the most important seasonal holidays were known as “cross-quarter days,” which marked the mid-point between the solstices and equinoxes. There was Beltane, which marks the first day of summer; Lughnasadh, which celebrated the first day of autumn; Samhain, which fell around November 1 and marked the beginning of winter; and Imbolc, which marked the beginning of spring, Andrew E. Rothovius writes for the The Old Farmer's Almanac

Imbolc (pronounced ee-MOLG) fell right between the winter solstice and spring equinox, and is one of the ancient traditions that many point to as one of Groundhog Day's predecessors. Imbolc was often considered a time for initiations as well as predicting the weather, according to EarthSky.org. Making a forecast based on whether a groundhog sees its shadow may sound silly now, but during the Iron Age food was scarce by this time of year and people likely looked to their traditions for signs of relief.

As Tim Joyce writes for Q13 Fox News:

One of the legends is that on Imbolc, the creator (in their cultures personified as an old woman) would gather her firewood for the rest of the winter. According to the story, if she wished to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people...believed if February 2nd is a day of foul weather, it means that the creator was asleep and winter is almost over.

Over the centuries, people began to look for signs of the weather in all kinds of animals, from snakes to groundhogs. Ancient Germanic people, for example, would watch to see if a badger was spooked by its shadow, according to EarthSky.org. When British and German immigrants first came to the United States, they brought their traditions with them, including the celebrations that evolved into Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day isn’t the only cross-quarter holiday that has stuck to the modern calendar: many people now celebrate May Day in honor of workers around the world, and Halloween also has roots in Samhain, the Celtic day of the dead, Joyce writes.

These days, most people know better than to trust a skittish groundhog with predicting the weather. Experts say that groundhogs like Punxsutawney Phil and Staten Island Chuck are only right about 30 percent of the time. But when you’re in the midst of a long, cold winter, sometimes a little levity is in order.

Editor's Note February 5, 2016: This article has been updated to clarify the Celtic festivals associated with cross-quarter days. The article has also been corrected to emphasize that many cultures, not just the Celtics, have holidays marked by solstices and equinoxes.  

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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