Ground Hog Day Fact & Trivia

For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May. Old English proverb

Today, February 2, is Groundhog Day. According to tradition, on this day, woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, emerge from their hibernation to venture outside, look around, and if they see their shadow, it means another six weeks of winter. On the other hand, if it’s overcast, it’s a sign of an early spring.

In the U.S., Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a small town in west central Pennsylvania, is generally considered Groundhog Day Central, and the setting of the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character is forced to relive the day over and over again until he can learn to give up his selfishness and become a better person. While Punxsutawney gets the most publicity, many other communities from Georgia and Alabama, north to Ontario, and as far west as Aurora, Colorado and Dallas, Texas, have Groundhog Day observances of one kind or another.

While American observances of Groundhog Day have their origins from early Pennsylvania Dutch in Pennsylvania, the celebration has its origins in early European and Celtic folklore.

An early written reference to Groundhog Day comes from an 1841 diary entry of a Pennsylvania storekeeper, James Morris, who wrote, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas Day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out as the weather is to be moderate.”

Candlemas Day has origins in the early Christian church, marking the presentation of the baby Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, forty days after his birth in Bethlehem. In some churches, people bring beeswax candles to the church on February 2 to be blessed, as the holy man, Simeon, held the baby in his arms and proclaimed he would be a light to the gentiles.

In some Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries, Candlemas Day is called Candelaria Day. In Portugal, the custom asserts, “If the Candelaria is smiling (sunshine), the winter is still to come, if the Candelaria is crying (raining), the winter is out.”

We don’t have woodchucks in western Montana, though we do have other marmots, the yellow-bellied marmot, often known as a rock chuck, and the hoary marmot, which is found in high alpine areas, above the tree line. Asking, on February 2, either of these animals what the weather is going to be in coming weeks is likely a waste of time, as they are going to be in full hibernation this time of year.

As to whether to believe the various Groundhog Day weather predictions, I’d suggest a grain of salt. In 2011, for example, Smith Lake Jake of Alabama, Octorara Orphie, Quarryville, Pennsylvania, and Mountain Maryland Murray, Cumberland, Maryland, all saw their shadow and predicted more winter weather. On the other hand Grady the Groundhog, Chimney Rock, North Carolina, Minnie the Groundhog, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, and Punxsutawney Phil, himself, all predicted an early spring. I couldn’t make up those names, by the way.

Groundhog Day proponents claim the predictions are right 75 to 90 percent of the time. On the other hand, a Canadian study for 13 cities in the past 30 to 40 years put the success rate at 37 percent. The National Climatic Data Center stated the overall prediction accuracy rate is around 39 percent.

In short, you’d be more accurate in predicting the weather by flipping a coin, instead of relying on woodchucks for this vital information. On the other hand, around here, an early spring as compared to six more weeks of winter is pretty much the same thing.

Finally, in this political year, I’ll mention that in Alaska, Groundhog Day is officially called Marmot Day, as there are few groundhogs in Alaska. The holiday change was passed by the Alaska legislature in 2009 and signed into law by then-Governor Sarah Palin. Gotta love her.

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