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Groundhog Day: A popular North American tradition explained

In the US, the most famous such prognostication is held at Punxsutawney town (pronounced “punks-uh-taw-nee”) in Pennsylvania state. A few other “impostor events” also take place elsewhere.

By: Explained Desk |
Updated: February 4, 2021 11:03:57 am
This year, the groundhog, called “Punxsutawney Phil”, has predicted a longer winter. (AP)

On Tuesday (February 2), the United States and Canada marked Groundhog Day, an annual tradition in which a groundhog predicts whether winter will continue or give way to spring soon.

In the US, the most famous such prognostication is held at Punxsutawney town (pronounced “punks-uh-taw-nee”) in Pennsylvania state. A few other “impostor events” also take place elsewhere.

This year, the groundhog, called “Punxsutawney Phil”, has predicted a longer winter.

Groundhog Day got a boost of popularity after a 1993 film of the same name starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.

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The rodent and its shadow

If on February 2, the day is sunny and the groundhog (a rodent native to North America) emerges from its burrow and sees its own shadow, it is said to predict six more weeks of winter.

On the other hand, if the day is cloudy and the animal’s shadow can’t be seen, it is taken to be a sign of milder weather in the following weeks, indicating an early spring season.

On Tuesday morning, the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil spotted its shadow in Punxsutawney, predicting another month and a half of winter — for the benefit of those who trust the prediction made by a large rodent.

The tradition of Groundhog Day

The tradition began during the Middle Ages in Europe, when it was believed that badgers and bears interrupted their hibernation to appear on this day. German settlers in North America brought the tradition with them, and the badger was replaced by the groundhog.

Groundhog Day is also believed to be an enhanced version of Candlemas, a Christian festival which falls on the same day every year. According to lore, clear weather on Candlemas day forebodes a prolonged winter.

The event in Pennsylvania

The Punxsutawney event began in 1887, and receives significant media attention in the United States. Reports appeared on Tuesday in all major American publications, as Punxsutawney Phil, the designated groundhog, emerged from its temporary home in the morning before sunrise, and made its prediction.

The event is usually quite a spectacle, as a group of people in top hats and tuxedos announce the interpretation to an expectant crowd cheering “Phil! Phil!”. This year, however, the event was online — livestreamed to Phil’s fans, who numbered more than 15,000 at one point.

On Tuesday morning, members of Phil’s “inner circle” woke up the furry critter at 7.25 am at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, to see whether he would see his shadow or not, the Associated Press reported.

“Shortly after this year’s prediction was revealed, one of the members of the inner circle shared a message he said Phil had told him earlier in the day: ‘After winter, you’re looking forward to one of the most beautiful and brightest springs you’ve ever seen.’

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“Another member of the ‘inner circle’ noted the uniqueness of the past year (when the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged the world),” the AP report said.

Phil’s accuracy

So far, Phil has been accurate less than 40 per cent of the time, and has predicted a longer winter on more than 100 occasions. On February 2 last year, Phil had predicted an early spring.

In its 135-year history, Phil has predicted winter 106 times and spring 20 times, the AP report said, quoting the “inner circle”. Ten years were lost because no records were kept.

Scientifically, the emergence of a groundhog from its burrow is believed to be related to the amount of fat that the animal could store before going into hibernation.

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