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The European Roots of Groundhog Day

The role our ancestors played in a national custom.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Melissa Slate
Word Count: 392 (approx.)
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Every February 2 America takes a moment to enjoy the fun of watching a furry creature predict the weather with as much accuracy as our scientific weathermen. Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous weather forecasting groundhog, emerges from his long winter nap each February 2 as he has for hundreds of years, as we wait anxiously to determine if Phil will see his shadow, telling us if we are facing six more weeks of winter weather.

The groundhog tradition has roots steeped in legend and history. The early Europeans observed Candlemas Day, a day when clergy blessed candles and distributed them among the people. This day marked a special weather milestone in that if the day was bright and clear winter was not over for the season and bad weather was still ahead.

The Romans carried the belief of Candlemas Day to the Germans who evolved the tradition by declaring that if the hedgehog saw its shadow then the second half of winter was yet to come. The Germans studied carefully the hibernation habits of the hedgehogs, trying to discern if a break in the weather was close at hand. Germans were some of the earliest settlers in Pennsylvania and finding hedgehogs to be in somewhat short supply, decided that the groundhog was a wise and worthy counterpart to the hedgehog. They decided that if a creature as wise as the groundhog saw his shadow on Candlemas Day he would rush quickly back to his burrow to await six more weeks of winter.

The first observance of Groundhog Day came in 1886 a full year before the beginning of the annual trek to Phil's den on Gobbler Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Phil's predictions were held in privacy until 1966 when they started becoming a national media event. Now every year crowds, some in excess of 30,000 people, gather around Gobbler's Knob to hear firsthand Phil's weather wisdom. The celebration has even had a movie made in its honor.

It is amazing to think that our German ancestors so many years ago were responsible for bringing to this new country a tradition, which is still being kept alive today and has grown to majestic proportions. Celebrate Groundhog Day this year by investigating your family traditions. How many can you trace back to their origins and how old are they? You may find some very interesting and surprising revelations.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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