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6 Facts About Groundhog Day That Bear Repeating
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Article image
Original photo by SERGEI BRIK/ Shutterstock

Since it was first celebrated in the late 19th century, Groundhog Day has been a fun — albeit scientifically dubious — annual tradition. Every February 2, revelers gather to learn whether we’re in for a lengthy winter or early springtime, a verdict determined by several “prophetic” rodents around the country. Whether you place your trust in Punxsutawney Phil or Staten Island Chuck, here are six facts about Groundhog Day that bear repeating.

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Punxsutawney Phil Holds Several Official Titles — and a Royal Namesake

Punxsutawney Phil is held up to see during the ceremonies for Groundhog day.
Credit: Brett Carlsen/ Getty Images News via Getty Images

There’s no more celebrated creature on Groundhog Day than Punxsutawney Phil, the most popular resident of the small Pennsylvania town for which he’s named and where the first official Groundhog Day festivities occurred in 1887. While “Punxsutawney Phil” may be a mouthful to say all by itself, the rodent’s official name is actually “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.” According to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, the name has a regal connotation: Phil was named after a “King Phillip,” although it’s not clear which one. However, it’s entirely possible that Phil was actually named after Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, Prince Philip. In 1953, Punxsutawney buried a pair of groundhogs that had been named Elizabeth and Philip, after the royal couple, and it was eight years later that the name “Punxsutawney Phil” first appeared in local records.

While it seems logical to assume that there have been many groundhogs named Punxsutawney Phil since then, local lore tells a different story. Tradition has it that each summer, at the town’s Groundhog Picnic, Phil is fed a magical elixir known as “Groundhog Punch” that’s said to extend his life for another seven years. And when he’s not making annual weather forecasts, Phil relaxes at home in the town library with his wife, Phyllis.

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Groundhog Day Stems From a Holiday Called Candlemas

People gathered together for Candlemas ceremony.
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Though Groundhog Day was created on American soil, it was inspired in large part by an ancient Christian tradition known as Candlemas, which was brought to the Pennsylvania region by German settlers. Like Groundhog Day, Candlemas is annually celebrated on February 2; it commemorates the day the Virgin Mary went to Jerusalem’s holy temple to be purified 40 days after the birth of Jesus, and to present Jesus to God as her firstborn. Candlemas also features the blessing and distribution of candles, which burn to represent the length of the winter each year.

Likewise, Candlemas was associated with the prognostication of spring’s arrival. One old English rhyme states, “If Candlemas be fair and bright / come, Winter, have another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain / go, Winter, and come not again.” One major difference between Candlemas and Groundhog Day, however, is that the former was known for a creature called the Candlemas Bear, whose emergence from hibernation meant the coming of spring. Germans also originally used hedgehogs for the same purpose. The bears and hedgehogs were later changed to a groundhog during the establishment of the newer holiday in America.

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Groundhog Day Celebrations Once Involved Eating Groundhogs

A groundhog eating grass.
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When the first Groundhog Day occurred on February 2, 1887, in Gobbler’s Knob, Pennsylvania, groundhogs were celebrated not only for their predictive abilities but also for their delicious flavor. In the 1880s, groundhog meat was the preferred cuisine at the local Punxsutawney Elks Lodge, the same lodge responsible for conceiving of the original Groundhog Day ceremony — and a summer hunt. Locals loved the taste of the small rodent, saying it was “like a cross between pork and chicken.” They would also indulge in celebratory potables like “Groundhog Punch,” an unusual concoction known to contain vodka, milk, eggs, and orange juice.

Groundhog meat continued to be served as a regional delicacy into the 20th century, with a recipe for “Groundhog, Punxsutawney Style” published in a 1958 cookbook to raise money for a local hospital. However, the hunting portion of the holiday ultimately faded in popularity, as locals opted to enjoy the animal more for its cuteness than for its taste.

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Groundhog Day Predictions Were Censored During WWII

A groundhog casting his shadow.
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According to Bill Cooper of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, the only year Groundhog Day hasn’t been celebrated since its inception is 1942. During World War II, Americans were cautious to not potentially divulge favorable weather forecasts to their enemies. The rule was a nationwide edict that even prevented newspapers from printing sky conditions, instead forcing them to be vague about how certain days were nicer or gloomier than others. That mandate extended to the 1942 Groundhog Day celebration; that year, the prediction stated, “War clouds have blacked out parts of the shadow.”

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Punxsutawney Phil’s Predictions Are Less Accurate Than a Coin Flip

A groundhog predicting an early spring.
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He may be heralded as the most prophetic rodent in the world, but Punxsutawney Phil’s annual predictions are far from accurate. According to records, Phil has predicted 107 forecasts of a longer winter compared to just 20 early springs (nine additional years lack records on file). When taking into account the historic weather data that followed Phil’s predictions, he’s been correct only around 39% of the time — making him a less reliable barometer than a coin flip.

Phil has a bit of competition when it comes to weather forecasting. Staten Island Chuck — a resident of New York’s Staten Island Zoo — has a prediction rate over 80%. Chuck went on a hot streak and made a correct weather prediction every Groundhog Day between 2010 and 2021, with the exception of 2017. So while Phil is undeniably more famous, Chuck may have the edge when it comes to actually foreseeing the future.

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Tom Hanks Was Considered for the Lead Role in the Film “Groundhog Day”

Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in a scene from the film 'Groundhog Day'.
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The 1993 film Groundhog Day established the holiday as a nationwide phenomenon, and while it’s hard to imagine anyone but Bill Murray in the lead role, he was nearly beaten out by another famous actor. Director Harold Ramis wanted Tom Hanks to portray newsman Phil Connors, though it was ultimately concluded that Tom Hanks was “too nice” to play the curmudgeonly part. Other actors considered for the role included Chevy Chase, Kevin Kline, and Michael Keaton, the latter of whom was offered the part but turned it down because he didn’t “understand” the movie. Keaton later expressed regret for that decision in a 2014 interview, though given Murray’s memorable performance, it all worked out to the delight of audiences.