Why Are We Watching A Groundhog Today?

by Pamela J. Hobart

It's the day after the Super Bowl, and while it might seem like the only thing people are talking about this morning is that mega depressing Nationwide commercial that aired last night, there is, in fact, another important call worth discussing — February 2 is Groundhog Day, which means it's time for Punxsutawney Phil to work his magic. Allegedly, that darn creature holds our wintry fate in its wretched little paws, but what does it mean when the groundhog sees his shadow? And more importantly, should we even care? I'm not a television news person myself, but Twitter and Facebook and email marketers and everyone else never fail to make a huge deal about things that, in the grand scheme of life (or at the very least, the changing of seasons), don't seem to matter very much.

This whole idea of using a groundhog to determine the arrival of spring may seem pretty silly, but the concept is simple enough: if the groundhog sees his shadow, then we have six more weeks left of winter. If he doesn't, then the world can issue a collective sigh of relief as we prepare to usher forth an early spring. As it turns out, Groundhog Day has its roots in an early Christian tradition in Europe called "Candlemas Day." On this occasion, church officials handed out blessed candles to townspeople, who clutched them and sang while they hoped for spring:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.

The Romans brought Candlemas to the Germans, because imperialism, and the Germans brought it to the now-United States when they settled in Pennsylvania. As the tradition spread around over here, farmers changed their chant, but held to marking the date: “Groundhog Day — Half your hay."

Since February 2nd is the halfway point between the winter solstice (December 21) and the spring equinox (March 21), you'd be pretty screwed if you had already burned through more than half of your winter supplies. But as you may have noticed, we still haven't heard about the groundhog himself. That's where the good people of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania come in.

As the story goes, a newspaper editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit looked upon his local groundhog hunters in the 1880s and was inspired to declare a groundhog the official predictor of winter weather. That's right: the groundhog part was basically just made up by some guy. He wrote stories in the Spirit each year to spread and build up the new legend. From then until today, members of the Punxsutawney "Inner Circle" have cared for their particular marmot named "Punxsutawney Phil," bringing him out each year for what is the official Groundhog Day ceremony (the one after which all other impostor Groundhog Day ceremonies are styled). They bring Phil out on February 2nd: if the sky is overcast, the cold season is supposed to end soon. But if it's sunny and Phil sees his shadow, we're all in for six more weeks of winter.

You might not want to count on this piece of "folk wisdom," though. According to the National Climactic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina, between 1988 and 2011 the groundhog accurately predicted that year's February weather 10 times, but got it wrong 13 times. In other words, the groundhog's predictions are hardly better than chance, and this difference may not even be statistically significant. So sorry to bust your bubble, but you might as well flip a coin to see if winter will last six more weeks or not. At least there'd be no danger to any groundhogs — New York's mayor Bill De Blasio dropped a groundhog in a Staten Island ceremony last year, and she died a few days later. Oops. (They're inviting De Blasio back, but wisely housing this year's animal safely behind plexiglass).

Probably the Groundhog Day ceremony, and the Candlemas ceremonies before it, gave pre-scientific humans some sense of predictability (if not control) over their surroundings. In particular, maybe it kept them from becoming too disappointed when a sunny early February turned into another bout of winter doldrums. If you're still interested in this archaic ritual, catch the livestream of Punxsutawney Phil here. And if you want to try something more effective than superstition for chasing away your winter blues, try some seasonal affective disorder-busting techniques instead — no overgrown squirrels required.

Images: mpphoto2000/Fotolia; Giphy