The History of Groundhog Day

By Lauren Wanko

He’s become the most famous groundhog in the country — Punxsutawney Phil.

“I always like to see what he comes up with for the holiday,” said Belmar resident Jennifer Patella.

Others are less impressed.

“I think that he’s pretty useless because I want spring to come,” said Casey Roshelle of Avon.

Monmouth University’s Stanton Green said, “Basically Groundhog Day is from a long tradition of weather — what they call weather divination — basically people wanting the winter to end.”

Professor Green says for centuries people have wanted to predict the weather and seasons. Europeans used to when certain animals, like bears came out of hibernation. They used that as an indicator that spring was near.

“People have always looked for the beginning of the spring because the beginning of spring is the beginning of growth, it’s the beginning of warmth, it’s when you plant your fields and all those kinds of things,” Green said.

The anthropology professor found a Scottish Gaelic proverb about the beginning of spring. He says it’s about 2,000 years old.

“The idea of Groundhog Day really goes back to prehistoric times. Some of the neolithic monuments in Ireland, neolithic meaning 3,000, 5,000 years ago, are aligned with the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, which turns out to be Feb. 1, around Feb. 1, Feb. 2,” Green said.

The early European Christians celebrated the arrival of spring, says Green.

“The Celtic holiday of Imbolc basically was Christianized and tied into what’s called Saint Brigid’s Day and there were a variety of Christian traditions that tied in with that, with candles with priests going from house to house,” he said.

In America, it was the German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania that assigned the groundhog the job, says Green.

“The groundhog I think was just a matter of convenience and there are lots of them in western Pennsylvania, so like a lot of things, when people bring their traditions from other places, they adapt to their new place,” he said.

Today Groundhog Day has become ingrained in our culture. In the 1990s, the Greens watched the celebration. The kids waited eagerly and wondered will Phil see his shadow, meaning another six weeks of winter? Although the groundhog’s not known for its accuracy, says Green, he still appreciates the tradition.

“Rituals are an important thing for holding communities together,” he said. “Especially these days of incredible change, it’s nice to know some things don’t change. It’s nice to know, for example, that Feb. 2 is Groundhog Day.”