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Groundhog Day: Ancient Origins of a Modern Celebration

A groundhog emerges from its den

A groundhog emerges from its den in this photo by Minhaj, which was shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

Most of us know the tradition: on February 2, our old friend the groundhog will emerge from hibernation, come out of his den, and predict whether winter will deliver more cold weather this year. If the groundhog sees his shadow, the story goes, he will return to hibernation and cold weather will persist another few weeks. If not, warm weather is around the corner.

Chromolithograph artwork of a groundhog, labeled "Woodchuck."

This 1874 print from L. Prang & Co. calls the groundhog by its even more common name, “woodchuck,” and uses the older form of its scientific name, “Arctomys Monax.” The designation has since been changed to “Marmota Monax.” Find the archival scan with its bibliographic record here.

“Groundhog” is the common vernacular name of the ground squirrel formally known as Marmota Monax. This animal also goes by other names; the terms “woodchuck,” “marmot,” “land beaver,” “whistler,” and even “whistle-pig” all refer to the same creature. Whatever the name, there’s a strong belief that this little burrowing mammal predicts the weather, and a specific connection to the second day of February. This Groundhog Day tradition is celebrated in many places in the United States and Canada, with an emphasis on tongue-in-cheek humor and ceremonious proclamations. It is best known among people whose ancestors spoke German, especially the Pennsylvania Dutch.

If you like the folklore of holidays, you may be interested to know that Groundhog Day is related to two of the other holidays we have written about extensively on this blog: Halloween and Mayday. In his 2003 book Groundhog Day, folklorist Don Yoder traces the roots of Groundhog Day to the same cycle of pre-Christian festivals that gave us those two celebrations. In astronomical terms, these holidays were the cross-quarter days, those days that fall midway between a solstice and an equinox. These festivals were apparently celebrated throughout Europe by the various tribes we now refer to as Celts. Yoder believes that they influenced the sense of time of all Europe and of the European colonies in America:

The seasonal turning points in the Celtic year were immensely important communal festivals in prehistoric, pre-Christian times. Of these festivals, the dates have continued to be important down to the present time. […] The Celtic names for the four festivals were Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasa.

For the ancient Europeans, these days were so crucial and so embedded in their cultural sense of time that when the Western European peoples were Christianized, the new Church, unable to root them out, “baptized” them into Christian holidays. May 1 became May Day, originally associated with the Virgin Mary and later a secular spring festival, with maypole, May queen, and other folkloric customs. August 1 became in Britain Lammas, or “Loaf-Mass Day,” when the farmers’ wives brought the first loaves of bread baked from the new harvest of grain to the church to be blessed. Since November 1 in the Celtic year was a day devoted to the dead, the Church made it into All Saints’ Day. But the people continued to celebrate the eve of the old holiday as Halloween, with its many harmless folkloric customs that have come all the way down to our day. February 1, extended into February 2, became Candlemas, and eventually Groundhog Day.

All of these transitional days looked to the future, looked ahead to the next season, the coming three-month period, and hence were weather-important days.

Watercolor of a young man and woman standing in a field of standing stones.

This illustration of the courtship of the young warrior Cuchulain and the noblewoman Emer was created by Stephen Reid and published in 1909. The story of Cuchulain and Emer contains several clues to the importance of the festival called Oimel or Imbolc, one of the roots of Groundhog Day. The artwork is in the public domain.

In the Irish saga “The Wooing of Emer,” which probably dates to the 11th century but recounts events set in pre-Christian Ireland, we find that the four days named by Yoder were indeed the main reference points for the reckoning of time; to express the idea that her suitor must be such a skilled warrior that he is safe at all times, Emer says that he must be able to “go out in safety from Samhain to Oimel [Imbolc], from Oimel to Beltaine, and again from Beltaine to Bron Trogain [Lughnasa].” In the same story, the warrior Cuchulainn calls Imbolc “the beginning of Spring,” and opines that the name derives from an ancient word for sheep, because Imbolc “is the time when sheep come out and are milked.” This saga thus shows that Imbolc was considered a seasonal turning point and a marker of time, and connected with the agrarian year and particularly with animal husbandry.

Unfortunately, we don’t know that much else about how ancient Celts celebrated Imbolc, but its importance as the first day of spring persisted to living memory. In Ireland, where most of our information about the holiday comes from, The Encyclopedia of Irish Spirituality tells us:

The day remains an agricultural festival. Farmers expect good weather for planting on Imbolc and fishermen traditionally overhauled their boats on this day. In traditional practice, there is divination to foretell the weather and family fortunes in the coming year.

Of course, Imbolc now goes by many names. In the Christian calendar, it became feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and in the Irish church in particular it is celebrated as St. Brigid’s Day. It is traditionally a day when people brought their candles to church to be blessed, so in English vernacular tradition, it is Candlemas, and in French and Spanish it’s known as Chandeleur and Candelaria. But the tradition of predicting the weather persisted through many of the holiday’s variations.

A groundhog holds a peach in its front paws.

The 2011 photo “Groundhog & Peach” by “Steve 1828” was shared to Flickr with a creative commons license.

Versions of this Candlemas weather-lore in English, Scots, and Latin have been preserved both as simple statements of belief and practice, and as rhymes, a few of which are listed in the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs:

Men were wonte for to discerne
By candlemas day what wedder shulde holde.
(John Skelton, 1523)

If Maries purifieng daie,
Be cleare and bright with sunnie raie,
The frost and cold shal be much more,
After the feast than was before.
(Reginald Scot, 1584)

If Candlemas day be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If on Candlemas day it be showre and rain
Winter is gone and will not come again.
(John Ray, 1678)

Si Sol splendescat Maria purificante
Major erit glacies post festum quam fuit ante.
(John Ray, 1678)

A man in a top hat holds up a groundhog. The image includes the words "Groundhog Day" and "Don Yoder."

The cover of Don Yoder’s book Groundhog Day shows Bill Deeley of the Inner Circle holding up the groundhog weather prophet Punxsutawney Phil during the 2002 Groundhog Day ceremony in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

Weather prognostication, then, became associated with the beginning of February during ancient times, and the tradition persists until today. But this still leaves us in the dark as to the groundhog and his role in the process!

It seems this part of the tradition, too, comes from Europe. Specifically, it comes from parts of Europe that were Celtic in ancient times, but were later inhabited by Germanic speakers. Germans believed the weather was predicted by a badger rather than a groundhog, but the traditions are otherwise almost identical. Yoder explains:

The Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens, or the Dictionary of German Folk Belief, has an article on Lichtmess, or Candlemas. “Above all,” it says, “Candlemas is decisive for the weather of the coming time, and with it also for the fruitfulness of the year.” […] This European encyclopedia also cites the Dachs, or badger, as the Candlemas weather prophet throughout much of German-speaking Europe…. Dachstag, or Badger Day, is a German folk expression for Candlemas. The belief was […] if the badger encountered sunshine on Candlemas and therefore saw his shadow, he crawled back into his hole to stay for four more weeks, which would be a continuation of winter weather.

As Yoder also points out, the badger is like the groundhog in being a small, hibernating, forest-dwelling mammal known for being very shy, and it was only natural for German-speaking immigrants to America to substitute the groundhog for the badger.

The first mention Yoder has found of groundhogs predicting the weather on February 2 is in a diary entry for that day in 1840, written by a Welsh-American storekeeper in Pennsylvania:

Today the Germans say the groundhog comes out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he returns in and remains there 40 days.

Morris describes this as a general belief of his German neighbors; it doesn’t appear to be limited to a single family or town, nor does he seem to think it is a brand-new belief. Since the belief and practice almost certainly came from Europe, and since the bulk of Pennsylvania Dutch immigration occurred between 1727 and 1775, it’s likely Groundhog Day was born in that period.

The beliefs and practices of Groundhog Day have led to a fascinating development in Pennsylvania Dutch country: the “Groundhog Lodges,” a loose organization of social clubs focused on the maintenance of Pennsylvania Dutch language and culture. The lodges, which hold meetings called “versammlinge,” at which participants speak only Pennsylvania Dutch, have existed since the 1930s. In his 2016 book Serious Nonsense, William W. Donner describes his first versammling in the 1990s:

A meeting of Groundhog Lodge #1 in Pennsylvania.

The cover of William W. Donner’s book Serious Nonsense shows a meeting of Groundhog Lodge #1 in 1971, with an eight foot tall statue of a Groundhog wearing a crown being wheeled down the aisle.

There were three or four hundred men in the hall. At the front were a decorated stage and an eight-foot statue of a groundhog wearing a crown. At the beginning of the meeting, everyone stood reverently as men in top hats carried in a stuffed groundhog and placed it in front of the speaker’s podium. They pledged allegiance to the American flag, sang “America,” and then listened to a prayer, all in the Pennsylvania German Deitsch language. They raised both hands as paws and took an oath of allegiance to the lodge and groundhog; they listened to a weather report, piped into the speaker system, about whether or not the groundhog saw his shadow; they ate a hearty meal; they sang songs; they watched a humorous skit about a lecherous doctor who cured people by transferring their ailments to his assistant; and they listened to an inspirational talk, sprinkled with humor, about the values of Pennsylvania German life. Anyone who spoke English, especially from the podium, was charged a fine for each word.

There is much more information about the lodges and their activities in Donner’s book, if you want to seek out a versammling for a Pennsylvania German experience. (I’ll mention here that “Pennsylvania Dutch” and “Pennsylvania German” mean the same thing; Don Yoder preferred the former term and William Donner prefers the latter.)

If you’re not Pennsylvania Dutch OR Pennsylvania German, you may feel like celebrating Groundhog Day without attending a long meeting or paying a fine for speaking English. One option, of course, is to attend a Groundhog Day celebration. Because of their association with a hibernating woodchuck, many such events are held outdoors, so you won’t be in a large indoor gathering, but we still urge you to take pandemic precautions and wear a mask!

The best known Groundhog Day ceremony occurs each year in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This annual festival traces its origin to 1887, when members of the local Elks Lodge first went to nearby Gobbler’s Knob to consult a groundhog about the weather. The observance developed into an annual tongue-in-cheek ceremony at which the groundhog, given the name “Punxsutawney Phil” in the 1960s, communicates his prediction to the “Inner Circle,” a group of men wearing formal suits and top hats. Though it’s only one of many Groundhog Day ceremonies held all across the United States and Canada, the Punxsutawney event is certainly the most popular, especially since it became the basis of the renowned philosophical comedy film Groundhog Day, which the Library of Congress inducted into the National Film Registry in 2015. (You can read its induction essay in a pdf at this link.)

photo of the Groundhog Day sign in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania

This photo of the Groundhog Day sign in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, was taken by Aaron Silvers and shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

If you live near us in Washington, D.C., you may be happy to know that we have our own local Groundhog Day observance at the Dupont Circle Fountain. Modeled on the Punxsutawney event, ours features “Potomac Phil,” a stuffed groundhog who magically communicates his predictions to an Inner Circle of people in top hats. Unlike his Punxsutawney relative, Potomac Phil makes predictions about both the physical and the political climate. In 2021, for example, he predicted both an early Spring and continued political gridlock. We’ll let you judge how accurate he was!

A stuffed Groundhog outdoors beside a carved fountain.

“Potomac Phil” holds court in Dupont Circle in this photo from Groundhog Day 2021. The photo was taken by “angela n.” and shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

Potomac Phil’s tradition continues in 2022. As the Dupont Festival promises:

WED, FEB 2, 2022 at 8:30AM sharp – GROUNDHOG DAY: Potomac Phil, the National Groundhog, will make an appearance and offer weather and political predictions. Phil will let us know whether to expect six more weeks of winter or an early spring. Music, polka dancers, puppet show, lots of coffee, VIP celebrities and more.

Of course, if you don’t live near a Groundhog Day ceremony, and you don’t want to travel, you can always watch the film Groundhog Day! Or you can read the two books I’ve mentioned, Don Yoder’s Groundhog Day and William W. Donner’s Serious Nonsense. If you have kids (or are a kid), there are a lot of children’s books about Groundhog Day at the Library, which you can learn about at this link.

A woman in a top hat puts her ear near the mouth of a stuffed, mounted groundhog, apparently listening.

Potomac Phil whispers predictions to one of his Inner Circle of followers in this photo from Groundhog Day 2017 in Dupont Circle. The photo was taken by Joe Flood and shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons license.

If you’re feeling very committed, you can cook and eat a groundhog; recipes were printed in many early American cookbooks such as this one, and even Irma Rombauer’s classic Joy of Cooking contained instructions for cooking “woodchuck” (which is just another name for “groundhog”) through the 1970s. Mind you, I’m not recommending eating a groundhog, just pointing out it’s possible, so I won’t include any recipes here!

Cover of "Groundhog Day Carol Songbook."

The Library of Congress has an edition of this book of Groundhog Day carols.

Another way to celebrate–and one we particularly recommend–is to sing or listen to groundhog songs. Yoder’s book contains parodies of carols such as “Grundsow Ivver Alles,” sung to the well-known German anthem; “Today the Groundhog Comes,” sung to “John Brown’s Body;” and “Punxsutawney Phil Looked Out,” sung to the tune of “Good King Wenceslas.” The Library of Congress even has a whole book of Groundhog Day carols, which you can learn about at this link.

While these song parodies constitute a vibrant tradition in their own right, the American Folklife Center’s archive can offer some older and less self-conscious groundhog songs. In particular, we have two available online: the well-known fiddle tune and banjo song just called “Groundhog,” and a blues song called “Prowling Groundhog.”

“Prowling Groundhog,” in various versions, has been part of the blues repertoire since the 1930s, but the version AFC has online in our collections was recorded in the 1970s from Sam Chatmon. It’s online at this link, at the website of our colleagues at the Association for Cultural Equity.

Our other perennial favorite on Groundhog Day is a fun recording of “Groundhog” from 1940. Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin collected it from Ernie Alston in the Shafter FSA Camp in California. Alston said he learned it from “a boy in Arkansas” and also provided a transcript of the words. Hear it in the player below and see the words below that. We think it’s pretty tasty!

“Groundhog” by Ernie Alston

I’ll take my gun and whistle for my dog
I’ll take my gun and whistle for my dog
Thought I’d get me a groundhog–groundhog.

The old dog treed and treed in a log
The old dog treed and treed in a log
One for me and two for my dog–groundhog.

I cut him up and I got him on soon
I cut him up and I got him on soon
He got done before quite noon–groundhog.

Here come the chillun with a laugh and a grin
Here come the chillun with a laugh and a grin
Groundhog gravy all over their chin–groundhog.

Old Uncle Sam kept hangin’ roun’
Old Uncle Sam kept hangin’ roun’
Thought he’d get my groundhog ham–groundhog.

Old Aunty Jane came skippin’ on a chain
Old Aunty Jane came skippin’ on a chain
Thought she’d get my groundhog brain–groundhog.

Old Aunty Sal came skip and a hop
Old Aunty Sal came skip and a hop
Flounced her head right in that pot–groundhog.

Want my grave dug deep and wide
Want my grave dug deep and wide
Want it lined with groundhog hide–groundhog.

Want my tombstone on it wrote
Want my tombstone on it wrote
Groundhogs runnin’ down my throat–groundhog.

If you want to compare this to other recordings of “Groundhog,” we recommend two from AFC collections recorded in Kentucky by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax in the 1930s:

Two men in the foreground sit in chairs, one with a guitar and one with a banjo. Four children are between them, one of whom plays a guitar. There is a crowd of people behind them.

This publicity photo from the 1920s shows Bradley Kincaid (guitar) and George “Shortbuckle” Roark (banjo) with Roark’s children and a crowd of admirers. We believe the photo is in the public domain. Roark recorded “Groundhog” for the Lomaxes in 1938.

“Groundhog,” sung and played on the fiddle by Blind Jim Howard is at this link.

“Groundhog,” sung and played on banjo by George “Shortbuckle” Roark is at this link.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse at Groundhog Day traditions. As we’ve seen, February 1 and 2 have a range of meanings and associations among different cultural groups, with Groundhog Day being just one of the more colorful observances. We hope to return in the future with more about St. Brigid’s Day, Candelaria, and other traditional ways to celebrate February.

But that’s for next year…for now, let’s hope the groundhog predicts an early Spring!

(This post drew on the research of one of our favorite mentors, Don Yoder. Find out more about Don’s relationship to folklife at these previous posts.)