According to a time-honored German legend, if a groundhog sees its shadow on Groundhog Day there will be six more weeks of winter. If the groundhog doesn’t see his shadow then spring is right around the corner.

On February 2, Groundhog Day brings thousands of people together from all over the world to celebrate the prediction of a furry forecaster.

The Origins of Punxsutawney and Phil

The town of Punxsutawney is nestled in the Appalachian plateau of Western Pennsylvania, located 84 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The word Punxsutawney originated from Unami language of Lenape tribes of the Delaware nation. There are two possible theories. Either the Lenape named it Punkwsutènay which means ‘land of mosquitos’ or Put’schisk’tey meaning ‘poison vine.’

punxsutawney-phil

Image courtesy of Chris Flook via Creative Commons

In the 18th century, Anabaptists from Germany sought asylum in the religious freedom of Pennsylvania’s colony.  The Pennsylvania Dutch brought their spring ritual of Candlemas to their new home. This was a ancient European ritual observed by cultures from the British Isles to the Germanic tribes of the European continent.

The earliest observance of an official Groundhog Day holiday was hosted by Punxsutawney in 1886. It was the first time that the spring ritual appeared in newspapers and the story of the groundhog gained popularity. The following year residents made the first official trek to Gobbler’s Knob where the ceremony continues each year. February 2, 1887 was also the official meeting of the Groundhog Day Club.

Punxsutawney Phil’s Legacy

When the Groundhog Day Club named Phil the official groundhog of Groundhog Day in 1887, they created a pop culture icon that still lives on today. Each summer the Groundhog Day Club feeds Phil a “magic elixir of life,” which members say extends Phil’s life by seven years. According to the club, Phil is 132 years old.

Pennsylvania embraces Punxsutawney Phil as symbol of the state. The Pennsylvania lottery utilizes the fame of Punxsutawney Phil by their creation of secondary groundhog who advertises the lottery as Gus – ‘the second most famous groundhog in Pennsylvania.’

gobblers-knob

Image courtesy of Doug Kerr via Creative Commons

Modern Groundhog Day

Today, Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney is a two-day celebration. You have to be up bright and early to see Phil do his thing. The gate at Gobbler’s Knob opens at 3 a.m. The event kicks off with a bonfire. Be sure to dress warmly if you attend as Pennsylvania weather is unpredictable.

The event has two viewing areas, one for families and one for students. After the forecast, you can enjoy activities such as wine tastings, art shows, crafts, music and more. Many of the events are completely free. There are even official Groundhog cookies to celebrate the day!

A Furry Forecaster with Personality

Now, according to those who have worked closely with Phil through the years things haven’t always gone as planned. Reportedly during Prohibition, Phil threatened to impose 60 weeks of winter on the community if he wasn’t allowed a drink.

In 1958, the Soviet Union surpassed the United States in the space race. Phil reported—that a “United States Chucknik,” not Sputnik, was orbiting the earth, collecting weather data.

In 2013, reportedly Phil got himself in some legal trouble. Ohio prosecutor Mike Gmoser sued Phil for ”misrepresentation of early spring, an Unclassified Felony.” Gmoser sought the death penalty but dropped his demands when Phil’s then-handler offered to take the blame.

Despite his moments of misbehavior Punxsutawney Phil remains one of Appalachia’s favorite critters!