Groundhog Day comes from Candlemas Day, observed for centuries in parts of Europe on February 2, where the custom was to have the clergy bless candles — representing how long winter would be — and distribute them to the people.
This seems to have derived from the pagan celebration of Imbolc — the Feast of the goddess Bridget, or in Christian Ireland St. Bridget’s Day and, alternatively, “The Purification of the Virgin” commemorating the time when St. Mary presented Jesus at the Temple at Jerusalem.
Modern Groundhog Day
In more modern times, says the old Scottish couplet:
If Candlemas Day is bright and clear
There’ll be two winters in the year
By the 1840s, the following idea caught on in the U.S., particularly in Pennsylvania, whose earliest settlers were German immigrants. If the groundhog sees its shadow on a “bright and clear” day, six more weeks of winter are ahead.
Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, is the headquarters of the celebration where the groundhog “Punxsutawney Phil” regards his shadow at Gobbler’s Knob, a wooded knoll just outside the town. The tradition there goes back to this day in 1887. And Bill Murray visited this location (repeatedly) in his movie Groundhog Day.
Usually, these are tens of thousands gather at Gobbler’s Knob for the event. It will be virtual this year due to Coronavirus.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian