Today is Groundhog Day, and so our Story from the Museum Floor by Judith from the Visitor Team, inspired by the Museum’s resident groundhog on our Living Worlds gallery, takes a looks at this annual tradition rooted in European folklore, which was made famous by the film Groundhog Day.
Groundhog Day is perhaps one of America’s more unusual customs. On the morning of February 2nd each year crowds gather at sunrise in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to wait for the verdict of it’s most famous resident, groundhog meteorologist, Punxsutawney Phil as he emerges from his burrow. The tradition says that if it’s sunny the groundhog will see its own shadow and there will be six more weeks of winter and if he doesn’t, spring is on its way.
Groundhog, Living Worlds Gallery, Manchester Museum
It’s thought that the idea of Groundhog Day comes from an ancient Christian celebration known as Candlemas Day, which marked the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. On Candlemas Day, it was the custom for clergy to bless candles and distribute them to the people – a lighted candle was placed in churches and windows to brighten up the dark winter nights.
”if Candlemas Day be fair and bright winter will have another fight but if Candlemas day be clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again”
The Candlemas Bells, also known as Snowdrops, symbolise hope according to Christian belief. © iStockphoto.com/ gaspr13
Superstition held that if the day was sunny and clear, people could expect a long, rough winter, but if the sky was cloudy, warm weather would arrive soon. This tradition was expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries by introducing hibernators such as the hedgehog or badger – believing that if the sun appeared and the hedgehog saw his shadow, there would be six more weeks of bad weather, or a “Second Winter.”
Groundhog Day – The Punxsutawney Spirit
The early German settlers in the United States established this European tradition, substituting the hedgehog or badger for the local groundhog. In 1886 The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper printed the first news of a Groundhog Day observance. The next year, The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club celebrated for the first time at the nearby town of Gobbler’s Knob, and the newspaper’s editor declared that Phil, the Punxsutawney groundhog, was America’s official weather-forecasting groundhog.
Photo from Gobbler’s Knob on TripAdviser.co.uk
They’re related to squirrels
The groundhog (Marmota monax), or woodchuck, is a type of rodent known as a marmot and are the largest members of the squirrel family. They live a feast-or-famine lifestyle and gorge themselves all summer to build up plentiful reserves of fat.
Groundhogs are one of the few species that enter into true hibernation, and often build a separate “winter burrow” for this purpose. They retreat to their underground burrows or settes and hibernate until spring, drawing their sustenance from body fat. While hibernating, the animal’s heart rate plunges, from 80 beats a minute to as few as 4 beats a minute and its body temperature drops from 98 degrees Fahrenheit, to as low as 38 degrees. In the spring, females average a litter of perhaps a half dozen, which stay with their mother for several months.
Well, it’s more about luck. Professional meteorologists have shown that Punxsutawney Phil seeing his shadow is not the final word on future weather patterns, mostly because the presence or lack of cloud cover on February 2nd has no definite correlation to what the season will be like for the next six weeks.
The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club said Phil – (they claim there’s only one and his life is extended through a special elixir) – has seen his shadow, 102 times and 18 times when he didn’t see his shadow, which would have meant an early spring. Phil’s predictions have been recorded as only 39% accurate according to Stormfax Almanac’s data.
Today’s the day!
The tradition has grown in popularity and now many other cities across the US hold their own Groundhog Day celebrations – but none are as elaborate as the one that takes place today at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This year will by Punxsutawney Phil’s (or rather his descendant’s) 132nd prediction. Tens of thousands of visitors show up for the event each year, according to the official website! And in case you can’t make it in person like Bill Murray in the 1993 hit movie Groundhog Day, there is a live stream of the prediction.
Groundhog Day fact: how many days does Bill Murray’s character spend trapped in a time loop in ‘Groundhog Day’? The film never gives us a final tally but Director Harold Ramis once stated that it must have been around 10 years, but he later amended that by saying 10 years was far too short. Other websites estimate that it could be up to 30 years.
Happy Groundhog Day!
Header image © Getty Images