Where Did Groundhog Day Come From?

Who decided we should trust a rodent in Pennsylvania with weather prognostication? The origins of Groundhog Day might go all the way back to a pagan holiday.

That’s a groundhog who was woken up too early.
That’s a groundhog who was woken up too early. / Anadolu/GettyImages

Groundhog Day is celebrated on February 2 because it’s close to the midpoint of winter, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Whether the groundhog (or any hibernating mammal) sees his shadow or not, winter will still last another six-and-a-half weeks. Yet Groundhog Day marks a turning point of the season, and for agricultural communities, midwinter was a time to take stock and determine whether you had enough food and firewood to last until late March.

Pre-industrial socities commemorated this important time with holidays—which may have evolved into our current rodent-based weather forecasting.

Pagan and Christian Origins of Groundhog Day

A Marmot With A Branch Of Plums
Groundhogs are cuter in real life. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Ancient pagans marked the solstices and the equinoxes as a way of measuring the cycle of a year. Important dates, considered the real beginnings of the seasons, fell at the midpoint between the solstices and equinoxes. These “cross-quarter days” were Beltaine, Lughnasadh, Samhain, and Imbolc. The old pagan holiday of Imbolc falls on February 1 and denoted the beginning of spring. An early Gaelic verse tell of the date’s importance in the cycle of the year:

The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.

Imbolc is also sometimes celebrated as the festival of the Celtic goddess Bríd or Brigid, who is often conflated with the Catholic saint Brigit. Saint Brigit of Ireland’s feast day is February 1. Catholic sources say Brigit was the daughter of a Celtic king and an enslaved woman, and that her innate purity was evident from her early life. In one story, she gave all of her family’s butter to the poor, but it was replenished as she prayed.

Some Christians today celebrate a feast day called Candlemas on February 2. The holiday occurs 40 days after Christmas, symbolizing the end of the Virgin Mary’s 40-day post-childbirth purification period required by Jewish law and her presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. In Orthodox communities that still use the Julian calendar, Candlemas is celebrated on the Gregorian calendar’s February 14. Worshipers took their candles to church for blessing on Candlemas.

Candlemas is likely linked to midwinter celebrations pre-dating Christianity and associated with weather prognostication. According to an old English folk song:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain,
Go, Winter, and come not again.

A Scottish folk song echoes the sentiment: “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there’ll be twa winters in the year.”

Weather-Forecasting Animals

A badger pictured in an early 20th-century German spelling book.
A badger pictured in an early 20th-century German spelling book. / brandstaetter images/GettyImages

Cultures around the world, and particularly those in wintry regions of Europe, looked to the emergence of hibernating animals as harbingers of spring. Though the snake mentioned in the old Celtic verses was rarely ever seen (especially in Ireland), mammals were believed to be fairly reliable prognosticators.

In some parts of Eastern Europe, Candlemas is also known as the day of the bear. Good weather on this day will cause bears to stay outside their dens, meaning spring will come soon. In other places that observe the folk ritual, if the weather is nice, the bear will see his shadow and be frightened back into his den for more winter weather.

More Stories About Holidays


In Germany, Candlemas is associated with the weather forecasting prowess of badgers (dachs in German). “Dachstag, or Badger Day, is a German folk expression for Candlemas,” writes folklorist Ralph Yoder in his book Groundhog Day. “The belief was […] if the badger encountered sunshine on Candlemas and therefore saw his shadow, he crawled back into his hole to stay for four more weeks, which would be a continuation of winter weather.”

In France, farmers kept their eyes on the Alpine marmot (a cousin of the North American groundhog) for their take on the arrival of spring, while English villagers waited on the emergence of hedgehogs.

From Dachstag to Groundhog Day

Staten Island Chuck appears on Groundhog Day
Staten Island Chuck gets his annual 15 minutes of fame. / Shahar Azran/GettyImages

Immigrants from Germany known as the Pennsylvania Dutch brought their Dachstag customs to America in the 18th and 19th centuries. There are no badgers endemic to the eastern U.S., but Marmota monax, popularly known as a whistle-pig, woodchuck, or groundhog, hibernated in the winter and filled the requirements of the old tradition. The first reference to Groundhog Day in the U.S. was made in 1841, in the diary of James Morris of Morgantown, Pennsylvania:

“Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

The tradition spread across the U.S., but the most famous groundhog still lives in Pennsylvania. Punxsutawney is trotted out every February 2 to check for his shadow while reporters and photographers look on. Other cities have their own groundhogs, and people in rural areas may look for evidence of spring from anonymous groundhogs.

Groundhogs, strangely enough, have never been particularly accurate when it comes to predicting the weather. The National Weather Service gives Punxsutawney Phil has a 40 percent accuracy rate since 2013. After all, how smart can an animal be if he’s spooked by his own shadow?

A version of this story was published in 2012; it has been updated for 2024.