Groundhog Day Has Religious Roots
By James Donahue
Strangely the annual North American observation of Groundhog Day, always observed
at the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on February 2, has roots in paganism and the Roman Catholic Church.
The church throughout Europe observed Candlemas on this same date. On this day candles
for sacred uses were blessed and lighted to commemorate the Purification of the Virgin Mary.
So how did a sacred ritual like that get connected to a woodchuck sticking its head
out of a snow bank and being a prognosticator of the arrival of spring?
As the story is told, February 2 also was the date of an old pagan celebration of
Imbolc. This marked the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. But attached with this, there was a
superstition that if the weather was fair on Imbolc, the second half of
winter would be stormy and cold.
When the church began celebrating Candlemas, the clergy would bless candles and distribute
them to the people. The candles were lighted and placed in each window of the home to help endure the dark of winter. Thus
there was a link between the candles blessing the Virgin Mary, and the weather.
It should not be surprising that Candlemas and the ancient celebration of Imbolc
would soon become intertwined in mythology and superstition.
The Germans attached a belief that if a hedgehog became frightened by his shadow
on Caldlemas, this would foretell another six long weeks of winter.
This strange belief was carried by German
settlers to North America during the Eighteenth Century. Eventually the German settlers, many of them located in Pennsylvania,
adopted the groundhog as their weather forecaster.
The idea of establishing February 2 as a national Groundhog Day began as a joke created
by Punxsutawney newspaper editor Clymer H. Freas on February 2, 1886. Freas published: “Today is groundhog day and up
to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow.”
Freas declared that the groundhog was to be named “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer
of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.” He declared the town
the “Weather Capital of the World.”
That day remained cloudy, the groundhog did not see his shadow, and there was an
early Spring. Or so the story is told.
The people of Punxsutawney must have enjoyed Freas’ joke. The story was repeated
each year afterward, and eventually the town began holding a mid-winter festival featuring Punxsutawney Phil.
In those days newspapers were mailed or carried from town to town and eventually
the story of the goings on in Punxsutawney became known all over the country. Then as the media moved into radio and eventually
television, the celebration of Groundhog Day became accepted as a nationally recognized event.
It was the 1993 release of the film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray that put the
final stamp on establishing the day enough to be marked on our calendars. It also put Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on the map.