9 Surprising Facts About Groundhog Day
By Scott Beggs
Groundhog Day is observed every February 2 in the United States. It’s a day for the world-famous Punxsutawney Phil and other groundhogs (a.k.a. woodchucks) to emerge from their hallowed holes nationwide to scope out their shadow and decide whether spring is on the horizon or if we’re getting six more weeks of winter. It’s one of the United States’s oldest traditions, immortalized by Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, about a grumpy weatherman who relives the holiday on repeat (for potentially thousands of years) until he can get his act together.
If you’ve ever been curious as to why we put so much stock into what these furry critters have to say about the weather, here are nine facts about the history of Groundhog Day.
1. Groundhog Day has its roots in another February 2 celebration.
Groundhog Day is an offshoot of the Christian celebration of Candlemas, which is held every February 2—exactly 40 days after Christmas. In parts of Europe, it was believed that a sunny Candlemas meant another 40 days of winter were on the horizon. In Germanic Europe, Candlemas was denoted as dachstag, or “Badger Day,” which utilized badgers to help with the weather predictions. According to tradition, if the animal saw its shadow on that day, people were in for four more weeks of winter. Even earlier celebrants used bears to predict the weather, but as their numbers thinned, badgers became the go-to meteorologists (though foxes also worked in a pinch). The Pennsylvania Dutch ported the tradition to the United States and replaced the badgers (which were mainly found in the central U.S.) with the much more common groundhog.
2. Groundhog Day weather predictions were censored during World War II.
Censorship rules throughout World War II meant that the biggest papers had to remain tight-lipped about any information that Germany and Japan could use against the United States. The rules were so strict that weather forecasts couldn’t be broadcast on the radio, and papers were forbidden from publishing sky conditions and exact temperatures. (They could, however, write in vague terms like “It will be cooler than yesterday” or “Temperatures will be the same as yesterday.”) In an article in The Miami Herald from February 2, 1943, forecaster H. A. Downes explained that, “All weather conditions are a military secret. To broadcast that a groundhog does or doesn’t see his shadow might reveal sky conditions to the enemy. Annual groundhog day predictions will have to be skipped.”
Those worries also extended to Groundhog Day celebrations. In 1942, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, canceled its annual February 2 event because, according to Punxsutawney Groundhog Club president Bill Cooper in 2002, “we did not want to give our World War II enemies any favorable weather forecasts.”
3. The first modern Groundhog Day event was held in 1887.
The earliest mention of a day concerning groundhogs in the United States dates back to 1840 in the diary of Pennsylvanian James L. Morris, but the first known instance of people gathering together to celebrate came in 1887 when a groundhog club traveled together to Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney to bring Punxsutawney Phil out to check for his shadow. The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper had reported on the groundhog not seeing his shadow the year before (though no event was held), and its city editor Clymer Freas is credited with inventing the day as we still celebrate it.
4. The Groundhog Day movie made the holiday’s popularity explode.
Up until the Murray-MacDowell movie, a few thousand people would trek to Gobbler’s Knob to partake in the festivities, but that number grew to the dozens of thousands after it hit theaters. Upwards of 40,000 people now travel to where Phil the Weatherman and Phil the Groundhog faced off in an existential battle of wills (and piano lessons). That’s about eight times the population of Punxsutawney itself.
5. The holiday has seen its fair share of violence and tragedy.
Punxsutawney Phil is not the only future-seeing rodent in the game—there are dozens of other groundhogs who star in celebrations across the country. One is Jimmy, the groundhog for festivities in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (which styles itself as the Groundhog Capital of the World). In 2015, Jimmy bit mayor Jon Freund on the ear and was subsequently pardoned the next day. As you might guess, bites are common with these animals because they don’t love being held by people, but it’s not always the rodent doing the damage. In 2014, then-Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio dropped the Staten Island groundhog Charlotte during their ceremony. She died a few days later, and the Staten Island Zoo had to issue a press release stating that the fall wasn’t what killed her. De Blasio never attended the ceremony again.
6. Punxsutawney Phil is named after King Philip (we just don’t know which one).
We’ve been calling the Punxsutawney wonder “Phil” since 1961, and several official sources note that the name is in honor of King Philip. Which King Philip? Your guess is as good as any.
7. Punxsutawney Phil is actually terrible at predicting the weather.
Despite the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club proudly proclaiming that Phil gets the weather right “100 percent of the time,” he‘s generally pretty awful about knowing whether winter is sticking around or not. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Phil has only been right 40 percent of the time between 2011 and 2021.
8. Everyone pretends that the same Punxsutawney Phil has been appearing on Groundhog Day since 1887.
Groundhogs only live to be about 6 years old, but Punxsutawney Phil is reportedly kept alive via a magical elixir that he drinks a sip of every summer. As per the lore, it is the same Phil—who used to just be called “Br’er Groundhog” or “The Punxsutawney Groundhog” until 1961—who has been delivering weather pronouncements since 1887, which puts him at 135 years old.
9. Punxsutawney Phil met Oprah.
In 1995, Phil went to Chicago to make an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The groundhog was impressively calm, leading Oprah to ask handler Bill Deely, “Is Phildrugged?” Deely responded, “No, Phil is not drugged. Phil loves the cameras. He thinks he’s performing.”
Phil’s also popular with politicians: In March 1986, members of the Groundhog Club went to Washington, D.C. to present President Ronald Reagan with a medallion and a photo commemorating Phil’s 100th anniversary. It wasn’t until 2003 that a sitting Pennsylvania governor—Ed Rendell at the time—traveled to Punxsutawney to partake in the festivities.
When he’s not hobnobbing at Gobbler’s Knob, Phil resides with his wife Phyliss (a mere mortal who doesn’t receive the same “magical elixir” as her hubby) in a climate-controlled sanctuary that’s part of the town library.
A version of this story originally ran in 2022; it has been updated for 2023.