How Groundhog Day Became a Tradition

This iconic celebration actually started with a hedgehog.

Every February, Americans eagerly wait for Punxsutawney Phil to pop his head up out of the ground and predict the end of winter. You know the rules: If the groundhog sees his shadow, we get six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't see it, it means an early spring is on the way.

But where did this bizarre tradition come from—and what does a groundhog have to do with anything? It turns out, while this tradition is primarily celebrated in the United States, its origins date all the way back to an ancient Christian tradition that's older than our country itself.

If your knowledge of the holiday is limited to the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day ($5, Walmart) brush up on the history of the day before tuning in to see if the groundhog sees his shadow this year.

Groundhog Day movie still
Archive Photos/Getty Images

When Is Groundhog Day?

Groundhog Day is always celebrated on February 2, regardless of the day of the week. It's celebrated on this day because the date marks the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. This year, Groundhog Day is Wednesday, February 2.

The History of Groundhog Day

The tradition of Groundhog Day dates all the way back to the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas, which had been celebrated on February 2. On that day, members of the clergy would hand out candles for the community members to use during the dark winter months, and it was said that the size and length of the candles predicted how long the winter would be.

Eventually the tradition of predicting how long winter would last evolved to include an animal. In Germany, a hedgehog was used to make a prediction on the day of Candlemas. When a large group of German settlers arrived in what is now the Pennsylvania area in the early 1800s, they continued the tradition but switched to a groundhog because they were much more common in the area.

The first recorded Groundhog Day took place on February 2, 1887, at Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Every year since then, Groundhog Day has been celebrated at Gobbler's Knob with a groundhog affectionately named Punxsutawney Phil (although it's not the same groundhog each year).

So as we wait to find out if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow this year, queue up the classic movie and cross your fingers for an early spring.

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