Every 2 February, onlookers gather at Gobblers Knob to see the weather prognostication from Punxsutawney Phil. Who is Phil you ask? The “Seer of Seers,” “Prognosticator of Prognosticators,” and “Weather Predictor Extraordinaire” is a Groundhog native to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Sitting on a stump in all his majesty, the “Inner Circle” of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club surround Phil to foretell the forecast. Here the top-hat-wearing men place two scrolls beside the Weather Predicting Wonder: one that shows an early spring, another that shows a long winter. As legend goes, if the groundhog sees its shadow winter will be longer, but no shadow represents an early spring. After the scroll is chosen, the President of the Club (Currently Jeff Lundy, better known by the alias of “Fair Weatherman”) say ‘we think we have a prediction’ and asks that the prognostication be read aloud. Whatever is read off the scroll chosen by Phil will set the forecast for the next season, as the Club proclaims Phil is over 120 years old and has a 100 percent accuracy rate (although the average lifespan of a groundhog in the wild is six years, and non-partisan estimates believe Phil’s accuracy rate is between 35 to 41 per cent). When the prediction is read, crowds of onlookers from across the country and the world cheer out and chant ‘PHIL!’ as the Seer of Seers is raised up into the air for all to behold. But why has a small town in western Pennsylvania been brought to prominence by a groundhog?
Despite the seemingly bizarre presentation, Groundhog Day is a prominent holiday in Canada and the United States. Outside of Punxsutawney, Groundhog Day celebrations are prominent in across the US: Woodchuck Willie (Chicago, Illinois), Buckeye Chuck (Ohio), and Sir Walter Wally (Raleigh, North Carolina) have all made predicting appearances on Groundhog Day.
The wide array of local celebrations dates back to Lutheran German immigration to the Americas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Groundhog Day is derived from the Lutheran festival Candlemas, also held on 2 February and involving weather prediction. Candlemas was used to predict the beginning of spring to help farmers prepare for when planting should begin. Instead of a groundhog, the badger was the most common animal associated with weather predicting in Germany, but regional variations also used the bear or the fox. Throughout the nineteenth century, Lutheran Germans immigrated to the United States. Germany faced a land shortage for farmers, creating economic problems for a significant portion of the population. The United States’ wide range of unsettled lands incentivised waves of immigration for those seeking greater economic opportunities and personal liberties thanks to constitutional protections. German immigrants to the US before 1850 were mostly farmers who settled in Pennsylvania and its neighboring states of New York and New Jersey.
Due to the high portion of German-Americans settled in the state of Pennsylvania, the German culture integrated within Pennsylvania’s, known commonly as Pennsylvania Dutch culture. It flourished throughout the state and remains incredibly prominent throughout to this day. Many German cultural practices diffused with the general Pennsylvania culture, and Candlemas was no exception. But the migration across continents caused some significant changes to be made to the holiday. While both Candlemas and Groundhog Day occur on 2 February, the celebrations are set apart by the representative animal as previously discussed. The German badger was replaced by groundhogs, which are solely native to the Us and Canada. The modern celebration of Groundhog Day has also lost all religious meaning and primarily serves as light-hearted fun.
From its inception Groundhog Day has found its own unique celebratory style in the United States. The first recorded Groundhog Day celebration was on 2 February 1840. The diarist James L. Morris, a Welsh immigrant of Morgantown, Pennsylvania, recorded this event while commenting on the customs of Pennsylvania Dutch in neighboring counties. Punxsutawney soon became the global stronghold for Groundhog Day related activity. In 1886, the local Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper recorded that ‘up to the time of going to press, the beast has not seen its shadow’ and an early spring was due. In 1887, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was founded where the group gathered at Gobblers Knob to see the groundhog’s prognostication. Ever since, Gobblers Knob has served as the key weather predicting site for all Groundhog Day enthusiasts. While the holiday is little known outside of North America, the Club has grown in its influence over time. The organisation has over 80 chapters nationwide and one in Germany.
Groundhog Day gained even further prominence following recent adaptations in pop culture. The 1993 comedy titled Groundhog Day, set in Punxsutawney, heightened the prominence of the holiday, and achieved a cult following of its own. The film sees its main protagonist get stuck in a time loop where he must relive Groundhog Day until he achieves the correct outcome for his future. Before the movie debuted, Gobblers Knob only received between 1,000 to 2,000 guests. Since the film’s release impact, Phil has been greeted with over 40,000 visitors annually (with the exception of 2021, which saw a virtual livestream only). The festivities are also streamed online every year.
The origins of Phil’s name have been speculated to have been related to Edinburgh. The Punxsutawney Groundhog was first given the name Phil in 1961, and it has been presumed to have been directly inspired by the Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. In 1953, Queen Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom. In response to the festivities, the town of Punxsutawney sent two baby groundhogs to the Griffith Park Zoo of Los Angeles, California. The two groundhogs were named Liz and Phil after the newly reigning couple. While the Zoo was prepared to accept the baby groundhogs, the California Department of Agriculture declared the baby groundhogs “agricultural pests” and killed both of them. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was infuriated by this and argued that Liz and Phil had been “executed.” The Club got their congressman to issue a critical statement towards California to ensure that this “insult to the royal family” would be put right. The two baby groundhogs were buried back in Punxsutawney and eight years later the name “Phil” started appearing in papers as the Groundhog Day mascot. It may very well be possible that Phil’s name is a direct homage to the United Kingdom’s royal family.
Groundhog Day serves as a prime example of how even some of the most obscure traditions can gain prominence through more secularised means. Through all the curious celebrations that occur throughout North America, Groundhog Day’s popularity has increased its awareness in the eyes of most Americans and Canadians. Phil can still be found weather forecasting to this day with his 2022 prediction aiming to set the meteorological trends for the next few months. As has been in the past century, Phil’s predictions will continue to provide consistency to all those looking forward to the long winters or early springs.
Written by Sam Marks
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