Despite vast advancements in meteorology since Punxsutawney Phil first “predicted” the exact time of winter’s end in 1887, the rodent has made its mark on American culture with a popular and unofficial holiday, Groundhog Day, each and every year.
If Phil sees his shadow, tradition says there will be six more weeks of winter. If he does not, there’s supposed to be an early spring. That is the extent of most Americans’ knowledge of the day.
However, this “holiday” has such a rich and fun history and continues to be of cultural importance that we couldn’t resist sharing 10 entertaining and little-known facts about Groundhog Day. (News flash: Phil saw his shadow Friday morning, so keep those winter coats handy.)
1.) The groundhog was once a meal. This Punxsutawney Phil is lucky. He gets to go home at the end of the day. When the so-called Groundhog Club conducted its first ceremony on Feb. 2, 1887, Phil was also lunch. He would predict the weather early in the day before the Groundhog Picnic. German immigrants who worked in coal mines and factories were not the wealthiest people, so the rodents provided them with extra meat. The same club also held a Groundhog Hunt in September in its earlier years.
In 1913, after the club killed 100 groundhogs during the hunt, the Cleveland Plain Dealer famously wrote, “If those people aren’t careful they’ll find themselves next February without any means of predicting how long the winter is going to last.” The club stopped eating their groundhogs after that, according to History.com.
2.) Bill Murray’s impact on the local economy cannot be understated. The actor famously starred in the 1993 comedy classic, “Groundhog Day” (along with Andie McDowell and others) — and although he was bitten by a groundhog twice during production (and even needed a rabies shot, according to IMDb), it was well worth it for tourism for the town of Punxsutawney. The Washington Post reported in 2013 that there were about 35,000 spectators at the event, according to organizers — while prior to the movie’s release, there were only about 6,500 residents of the entire borough, according to the U.S. Census.
3.) The movie wasn’t even shot in Pennsylvania. Ironically, Murray’s film was shot in Woodstock, Illinois, according to the town’s official website. One reason: Director Harold Ramis was based out of Chicago and Woodstock is only some 55 miles from the city. Still, delegates from the Pennsylvania borough were sent to Illinois to ensure the movie was accurate in its portrayal of Groundhog Day.
Ramis also claimed Punxsutawney did not have a town center that looked good on camera, according to Mental Floss.
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4.) There are many imitators. Most Americans know about Punxsutawney Phil — but there have been many knock-off versions over the years. For example, Ohio has Buckeye Chuck, Quebec has Wiarton Willie, Georgia has General Beauregard Lee, and Staten Island has Staten Island Chuck. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (a Democrat) is no longer allowed to hold Staten Island’s groundhog because he dropped it from six feet in the air back in 2014. The groundhog died a week later. The next year, Staten Island replaced that Chuck with a new one — and ironically, Staten Island was the only New York City borough de Blasio did not win in his 2017 re-election.
5.) Punxsutawney Phil can get political. There are a couple of notable instances in which the famous groundhog has gotten mixed up with politics. There was his visit to the White House in 1986 to meet then-President Ronald Reagan; and the official Groundhog Club also said Phil threatened 60 weeks of winter during Prohibition if he was not allowed to have a drink, according to PennLive.
6.) Groundhog Day isn’t all that original. Think this is some innovative idea the American Pennsylvania Dutch came up with themselves? Think again.
For centuries before Groundhog Day, people used animals to predict the seasons. In Europe, sightings of badgers, hedgehogs and bears waking up from their hibernation meant an early spring. The groundhog was picked because it bears a mild resemblance to a European hedgehog.
More importantly, the American cultural holiday has its roots in a Christian day of observance called Candlemas Day — which is also on February 2 annually.
Candlemas is the 40th day of the Christmas-Epiphany season and in Europe, it was considered a day of weather forecasting. The belief was that if it was sunny for the majority of Candlemas, there would be 40 more cold and snowy days. If Candlemas brings “cold and rain,” then winter is over, Backpacker Magazine noted.
Remember: Six weeks is 42 days and it’s easier to see your shadow on a sunny day. Sounds like Groundhog Day is the real impostor here.
7.) Punxsutawney Phil lives in his local library for an important reason. Phil might be a star one day each year, but that is about all he does. The rest of the year, the 20-pound rodent lives in a terrarium built into the Punxsutawney Memorial Library. He is bigger than the average groundhog (normally 12 to 15 pounds, according to Groundhog.com) and can be seen through a glass window from outside the building.
The reason Phil and his “wife,” Phyllis, live in this enclosure is because groundhogs, like many other mammals, hibernate during the winter. Keeping them in a warm, well-lit environment prevents Phil from going into a coma-like hibernation so that he can make an appearance at the ceremony every year. But Phil and his companion do have plenty of time to sleep the rest of the year.
8.) He is less accurate than you’d expect. If Phil were right, we would pretty much be having long winters every year. Out of the 130 times he’s predicted the weather, the rodent has come up with six more weeks of winter 103 times. Naturally, this does not mean it’s going to happen.
NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has tracked the last 30 predictions dating back to 1988 — and Phil has only been right about 46 percent of the time. This is calculated by the average temperature in the area during February and March and whether those are above or below the norm.
Maybe he gets on a hot streak over the next few years and can crack the 50 percent mark.
9.) Punxsutawney Phil has another talent. Like any other groundhogs, Phil can whistle. Groundhogs are sometimes called “whistle pigs” because they whistle to alert their colony to any potential danger.
Here is an example of a groundhog in the wild doing so when it sees a human:
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10.) Punxsutawney Phil wasn’t always Punxsutawney Phil. Groundhogs have an average lifespan of about 10 years, so naturally “Phil” has been played by a number of animals over the years — but this is not even the original name.
At first, Phil was named Br’er Groundhog (as in burrower) — but as the event in Pennsylvania grew, he was renamed Punxsutawney Phil.
The groundhog was named after King Philip, Groundhog.com notes, but renaming him also gave the town the opportunity to promote its own name as Phil grew more and more popular with the rest of the country.
Tom Joyce is a freelance writer from the South Shore of Massachusetts. He covers sports, pop culture, and politics and has contributed to The Federalist, Newsday, ESPN, and other outlets.