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What is Groundhog Day, Exactly?

Can’t you just feel the excitement in the air? February 2 is Groundhog Day, guys!

In French, they call it Jour de la Marmotte. In Spanish, they call it Dia de los Hoglips. In German, it is known as GROUNDEN STAB MURDER DAG! Probably. That French one is actually true, though.

At any rate, Groundhog Day is the thrilling day when a rodent from the Sciuridae family of marmots acts as a meteorologist. Well, that’s the premise anyway.

groundhog day Punxsutawney Phil 1985
Punxsutawney Phil in 1985. Bettmann/Getty Images

According to tradition, if, on the appointed auspicious date, the eponymous rodent emerges from his (or her) burrow to find a cloudy sky above, springtime weather will come early that year. If said rodent comes out on a sunny February 2 and sees his (or her) shadow upon the ground, we’re all relegated to six more weeks of winter weather.

Groundhog weather forecast: No shadow? Spring comes early. Shadow? Six more weeks of winter.

Of course, spring officially starts on March 20 anyway, which, as it happens is only a few days more than six weeks, so this whole thing is toothless from the get-go.

We’ll try not to editorialize too much here; instead, we’ll just lay out the facts. The American celebration of Groundhog Day was (likely) co-opted from a German tradition (and, no, it’s not GROUNDEN STAB MURDER DAG). The first mentions in the U.S date to the mid-19th century. By 1887, the holiday had gained sufficient traction to be officially recognized by the American government. The epicenter of the Groundhog Day festivities was, and remains to this day, the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

groundhog day Punxsutawney Phil 2014
Punxsutawney Phil in 2014. Jeff Swensen/Stringer/Getty Images

For nearly 130 years, a group of Punxsutawney locals called the Groundhog Club have helped their town’s most famous resident, a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil, preside over the annual winter prognostication. For the record, there have been many Phils. Likely between 25-30, based on the average lifespan of these rodents.

Groundhog Names

  • Punxsutawney Phil
  • Manitoba Merv (Winnipeg, Manitoba)
  • Buckeye Chuck (Mario, Ohio)
  • Jimmy the Groundhog (Sun Prairie, Wisconsin)

Many towns across the Americas hold their own Groundhog Day celebrations, with little critters sporting names like Manitoba Merv (Winnipeg, Manitoba), Buckeye Chuck (Mario, Ohio), and Jimmy the Groundhog (Sun Prairie, Wisconsin — and might I take a moment here to say well done, Sun Prairie, you really went above and beyond with your name choice there). However, purists will tell you that Punxsutawney Phil is the only real deal when it comes to rodent-related forecasting.

According to the Groundhog Club’s estimates, Phil is accurate in his predictions about 82 percent of the time. According to an independent and non-biased review of 40 years of prediction data, the little fellow is actually correct about 37 percent of the time.

Oh well.

Bill Murray Andie MacDowell Groundhog Day
Bill Murray downs coffee with Andie MacDowell in ‘Groundhog Day’ (1993). Archive Photos/Stringer/Getty Images

So, yes, Groundhog Day is kind of a silly phenomenon. However, without it, we would never have had the 1993 Bill Murray comedy

Groundhog Day

, which is a damn good film. It’s got laughs, love, and Bill Murray kidnapping Punxsutawney Phil. Everyone thinks they’ve seen it, or says they have, but have you? Seriously, if you’ve never seen Groundhog Day, use this as your excuse to do it and stop living the lie you’ve saddled yourself with for all these years.

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Steven John
Steven John is a writer and journalist living just outside New York City, by way of 12 years in Los Angeles, by way of…
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