Every year on February 2, millions of people ask themselves “What does the groundhog say?” as Punxsutawney Phil tries to forecast the weather for the next six weeks. Why do we trust a rodent to predict the weather? How accurate is he? What’s so special about February 2? And why does he have such a funky name?
First, where did this bizarre tradition come from? The short answer is Germany, where local legend indicated that if February 2 was cloudy, spring was imminent, but if the skies were clear, you could expect a long winter. Somehow this merged with other local traditions involving badgers and morphed. Sunny skies resulted in the badger casting a shadow; cloudy days meant no shadow. When some Germans emigrated to Pennsylvania, they brought the legend with them—but due to a badger shortage, they substituted groundhogs. Frankly, there is no meteorological basis for the legend. Phil’s predictions over the years are right about 30% of the time—no better than guessing. February 2 sits right between the winter solstice (midwinter, the shortest day of the year) and the vernal equinox (a day with equal lengths of day and night). So, by February 2, daylight has started to make significant gains against the long nights of winter. It’s also the date of Candlemas—a celebration of Jesus’ presentation at the temple 40 days after his birth.
These days, the “official” groundhog is a rodent named Punxsutawney Phil, named after Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania Punxsutawney Phil has been making official predictions from a hill called Gobbler’s Knob since 1887. He lives under the care of the Inner Circle of the Groundhog Club, who, in addition to interpreting his annual prediction from “groundhogese” to English, gives him a swig of the “Groundhog Elixir” which keeps him alive for yet another year. (I can’t think of a better reason why the same groundhog has supposedly been alive for over 100 years.) He is also said to be named after King Philip—and though it’s not clear which King Philip, my best guess is King Philip II, who was the husband of Queen Mary I (“Bloody Mary”) and later attempted to attack the English with his ill-fated Spanish Armada. Perhaps they named him after this king due to the role adverse weather played in the Armada’s defeat. If you want to celebrate, you can: