Everyone knows the classic 1993 Bill Murray movie, and almost everyone knows the basics of the holiday it's named after: Each year on Feb. 2, Punxsutawney Phil, the world's most beloved seasonal prognosticator, peeks his head out after a long winter in hibernation. If he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter; if he doesn't, we can all look forward to an early spring.
But there's a lot more to Groundhog Day than that. Its astronomical significance, its connection to things like pagan rituals and magic potions and the murderous rivalries in the groundhog community are just some of the things you probably didn't know about this weird, fascinating holiday.
So without further ado, here are 10 little-known facts about Groundhog Day and the very special rodent at the center of it all:
The very first Groundhog Day was celebrated on Feb. 2, 1887, according to h
istory.com, and was the brainchild of a Punxsutawney newspaper editor named Clymer Freas. He organized local businessmen and hunters to form the Groundhog Group, which made the first trek to Gobbler's Knob to witness Punxsutawney Phil's prediction.
Today, the Groundhog Group has been replaced by the Inner Circle, who organize and plan the holiday's events as well as look after Phil and his groundhog wife, Phyllis.
While Groundhog Day itself is a fairly recent invention, it's really just a new spin on a type of celebration that goes back possibly thousands of years and spans multiple cultures. Rituals based around animals predicting weather patterns are widespread, although the dates vary by region — as do the types of animal, which range from bears to badgers to hedgehogs or even caterpillars. According to the official Groundhog Day website, though, it was Roman soldiers who originally passed this tradition on to the Germanic tribes they came in contact with — the ancestors of Punxsutawney's original settlers.
Feb. 2 wasn't chosen at random. It has astronomical significance, according to earthsky.org. Known as a "cross-quarter day," this basically means that it's halfway between winter solstice and vernal equinox, or the point at which the days begin to grow noticeably longer. Because of this, it's seen as an auspicious date in both pagan and Christian traditions across Europe, according to patheos.com. Irish Celts, for example, celebrated it as Imbolc, the symbolic return of light after winter. Similarly, Christians from the fourth century on have celebrated it as Candlemas, or the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus. Part of this celebration involves the blessing of candles to be used in the coming year.
Rather significantly, in places like England, Germany and France, good weather on Candlemas is believed to predict a long winter, as shown in this version of a traditional English rhyme (from web.archive.org): "If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, / winter will have another bite. / If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, / winter is gone and will not come again."
According to Don Yoder's book "Groundhog Day," one of the ways in which Punxsutawney residents originally celebrated was with a groundhog hunt followed by a Groundhog Picnic at which the cuddly little rodents caught during the daytime were then served up as the featured item on the menu.
A more palatable option than eating groundhog might be the French version of the holiday. As part of the local Candlemas customs, aka La Fête de la Chandeleur, French Catholics eat crêpes. The round shape is said to symbolize the sun. A key part of the preparation, though, according to the French Cultural Center, is holding a coin in one hand while attempting to flip the crêpe in the pan with the other; if the crepe doesn't break, your family won't have to worry about finances for another year.
Be careful what you say if you happen to attend a Groundhog Day celebration in some parts of Pennsylvania where Pennsylvania Dutch culture is still strong. At many of these gatherings, or Fersommling, speaking English can get you fined, according to pennlive.com — usually a nickel or dime per offending word. If you happen to speak Pennsylvania Dutch, though, there are songs, stories, skits and other activities celebrating the local heritage.
Ordinary groundhogs only live about six years in the wild, according to wildlive-removal.com, but Phil is no ordinary groundhog. Not only is he named after a king and has his own language, called "Groundhogese," according to local legend, thanks to the magical Groundhog Punch he drinks every summer (travelchannel.com), Phil's life is extended almost indefinitely. One sip of the magical elixir is good enough to extend his life for another seven years, which explains how he's managed to stay in the weather forecasting game for more than a century with no signs of stopping any time soon. However, according to pennlive.com, it can also change his appearance, which is why he sometimes looks like a different groundhog year to year.
During prohibition, Phil's prediction one year went off the rails when he threatened 60 weeks of winter if he didn't get some alcohol, according to mentalfloss.com.
It turns out that, as remarkable as Punxsutawney Phil obviously is in many other capacities, he's not the best meteorologist. According to livescience.com
, data from Stormfax Almanac shows that his overall accuracy since 1887 has been a weak to middling 39 percent. And it's actually been getting worse. Looking at his predictions from 1969 on, the overall accuracy drops to just 36 percent. In other words, as Tim Roche of Weather Underground said, "You'll be better off flipping a coin than going by the groundhog's predictions."
Phil might be the most popular, but he isn't the only weather-predicting groundhog out there. He faces stiff competition from all over North America, including Georgia's General Beauregard Lee, who holds two honorary doctorates, one in weather prognostication and the other in "groundology"; Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie Sam, whose geographic location in the Atlantic time zone gives him an early start each year; Louisiana's Pierre C. Shadeaux, the Cajun sensation; and Ontario's Wiarton Willie, the albino groundhog whose short career began under a cloud of scandal and who, many believe, may have murdered two of his groundhog understudies, according to cbc.ca.
And that's not all. Phil doesn't just have to contend with other groundhogs. There's also T-Boy the Nutria (a type of semi-aquatic rodent from South America) and Claude the Cajun Crawfish, both from Louisiana, as well as Mojave Max (fox5vegas.com), a Nevada desert tortoise — each of which has a dedicated fan base.