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Groundhog Day is February 2. Phil says early spring!

Men in top hats and tails, holding a groundhog and looking happy.
It was 39 degrees F (3.8 C) this morning during the predawn Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Phil predicted an early spring! Image via screenshot.

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The great weather prognosticator

In case you’ve just landed here from another planet … Groundhog Day happens every year on February 2. It’s the day upon which, according to legend, a groundhog seeks its shadow. If it’s sunny and he sees his shadow, it’s said we’ll see six more weeks of winter. If it’s cloudy and he doesn’t see his shadow, it’s said to mean an early spring. By far the most famous of the February 2 shadow-seeking groundhogs is Punxsutawney Phil in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, which calls itself the:

… original home of the great weather prognosticator, His Majesty, the Punxsutawney Groundhog.

In most years, members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club hold public celebrations of Groundhog Day. Phil is said to have made his weather prediction in Punxsutawney since 1887!

The February 2 celebration was popularized by the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, in which a hapless weatherman relives Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney over and over and over again. It’s a great movie … if you haven’t seen it, do.

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Large crowd in front of a billboard with a picture of a groundhog on it.
Celebrating Groundhog Day in Young Township, Pennsylvania. Punxsutawney Phil, the great weather prognosticator, gives his forecast every Groundhog Day. Image via Steve-Wrzeszczynski/ Unsplash.

How accurate is Phil?

Last year (2023), Phil made his prediction for six more weeks of winter. In 2023, CBS News wrote:

Pennsylvania’s most famous groundhog emerged from his burrow on a cold Thursday morning and saw his shadow, declaring there would be six more weeks of winter. Punxsutawney Phil made his prediction as a deadly storm wreaked havoc in the South and the Northeast was bracing for a dangerous Arctic blast.

According to a 2024 post at The Weather Channel:

Phil’s accuracy was just 40% from 2013 to 2022, according to data compiled by NOAA.

Last year’s declaration of six more weeks of winter was a mixed bag result depending on where you live. Much of the West was colder than average in February and March, which goes right along with Phil’s verdict. The East, however, didn’t follow that script and was warmer than average, especially in February.

This year (2024), the forecast for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, is calling for clouds on February 2. Will Phil see his shadow this year?

The roots of Groundhog Day

So Phil is North America’s most famous weather predictor. But the seasonal traditions of this holiday go back a long, long way. The fact is, Groundhog Day is an astronomy holiday, whose roots are embedded in Earth’s yearly orbit around the sun. It’s what’s known as a cross-quarter day, a day approximately midway between a solstice and an equinox. Groundhog Day falls between the December solstice and the March equinox.

In modern times, the year’s four cross-quarter days are Groundhog Day (February 2), May Day (May 1), Lammas (August 1) and – the most sinister cross-quarter day because it comes at a dark time of year – Halloween (October 31).

The division of the year into segments is a common theme in human cultures. It makes sense because our ancestors were more aware of the sun’s changing movement across the sky. They had to be, since their plantings and harvests depended on it.

Sun in center with four Earths around it, different faces lit by sunlight.
The equinoxes, solstices and cross-quarter days are events that take place in Earth’s orbit around the sun. The cross-quarter days fall midway between the solstices and equinoxes. Groundhog Day is the 1st cross-quarter day of the year. Image via

More Groundhog Day history

In the Celtic calendar, the year is also divided into quarter days (equinoxes and solstices) and cross-quarter days on a great neo-pagan wheel of the year. So, just as February 2 is marked by the celebration of Candlemas by some Christians, such as the Roman Catholics, in contemporary paganism this day is called Imbolc and is considered a traditional time for initiations.

The celebration of Groundhog Day came to America along with immigrants from Great Britain and Germany. The tradition can be traced to early Christians in Europe, when a hedgehog was said to look for his shadow on Candlemas Day.

Wheel with 8-point star in it, the points labeled with pagan holiday names.
Neo-pagan wheel of the year. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Old rhymes and sayings

Try this old English rhyme:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight. But if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.

Or here’s another old saying:

Half your wood and half your hay, you should have on Candlemas Day.

In Germany, where a badger was said to watch for his shadow, the saying goes:

A shepherd would rather see a wolf enter his stable on Candlemas Day than see the sun shine.

A friend on Facebook said that, in Portugal, people have a poem about February 2 related to the Lady of Candles. Here’s the poem:

Quando a Senhora das Candeias está a rir está o inverno para vir, quando está a chorar está o inverno a acabar. [Translation: If Our Lady of Candles smiles (Sun) the winter is yet to come, if she cries (Rain) the winter is over.]

One final note. It’s supposed to be bad luck to leave your Christmas decorations up after Groundhog Day.

Small furry animal partly emerged out of a hole in the ground.
An old-fashioned meteorologist, a groundhog. Image via Filippo Pinsoglio/ Pexels.

Bottom line: It was 39 degrees F (3.8 C) this morning in Punxsutawney, PA, when Phil predicted an early spring. Happy Groundhog Day!

February 2, 2024
Astronomy Essentials

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