What is Groundhog Day?

On Feb. 2, 1886, Punxsutawney Phil came into his own.

That was the day the local newspaper, the Punxsutawney Spirit, ran the first story of whether the groundhog had seen his shadow or not. The newspaper reported that "up to the time of going to press, the beast has not seen his shadow," meaning spring would come early, at least for this tiny town in Western Pennsylvania.

From then on, Punxsutawney Phil – as the newspaper called him – was in the spotlight. A year after his prediction was published, the first official procession was made to Gobbler's Knob in a somewhat more elaborate ceremony. That year he did indeed see his shadow and scurried back into his hole to sleep another six weeks.

Though that was the first official celebration of what would become an annual tradition, the first reference to Groundhog Day was actually made in 1841, written in a diary kept by a storekeeper:

"Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters, and if he sees his shadow, he pops back for another six weeks' nap; but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate."

The storekeeper was referring to a tradition called Candlemas day, which German settlers brought with them when they settled the area in the 1700s. On Feb. 2 in Europe, clergy blessed candles and distributed them to people in winter. On that day, if the hedgehog (deemed to be a wise animal) cast a shadow, it predicted six weeks more of winter.

The German settlers believed the groundhog (very common in Pennsylvania) to be among the wisest of animals because it resembled the hedgehog they knew so well. They decided that if the sun appeared on Feb. 2, the groundhog would see his shadow and scurry back to his hole.

Hopefully, they didn't base important agricultural decisions on Phil – he's been right just 39 percent of the time. Not withstanding this losing percentage (good for a baseball hitter but pretty lousy for everyone else), the newspaper dubbed Phil "the Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinaire." The town of Punxsutawney (population 7,000) was proclaimed "Weather Capital of the World."

Phil, by the way, is also called a woodchuck and is a member of the squirrel family. A shy, burrowing animal, the groundhog eats mainly seeds, roots and other plant material. Phil lives on dog food and is kept in an opulent (for a groundhog) climate-controlled home at the local library.

Each year, members of the Inner Circle – local civic leaders – bring Phil to Gobbler's Knob, where the groundhog makes his announcement. This tradition has had its interesting moments, as recorded on the official Groundhog Day Web site, www.groundhog.org.