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Digging Deep Into The History Of Groundhog Day

02/02/2017 05:13 EST | Updated 02/02/2017 11:01 EST
Alan Freed / Reuters
Groundhog co-handler Ron Ploucha holds up groundhog Punxsutawney Phil after Phil's annual weather prediction on Gobbler's Knob on the 130th Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania February 2, 2016. Punxsutawney Phil, a famed U.S. groundhog with an even more famous shadow, emerged from his burrow on Tuesday and predicted an early spring. REUTERS/Alan Freed

Groundhog Day derives from Candlemas, a festival that has been celebrated since the fourth century. Traditionally, observers would light candles on an early February day to brighten things up, and monitor the weather to see if spring was approaching. Many poems have been written to celebrate Candlemas, such as this Scottish couplet: "If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the year."

Early Europeans later began enlisting hedgehogs to help predict future weather conditions, as the animals typically came out of hibernation at the start of February, during Candlemas. When German settlers started immigrating to present-day Pennsylvania, they brought with them Candlemas traditions, with one slight modification: Instead of using hedgehogs, they used a species native to their new dwellings: groundhogs, despite there being no relation between the two. If a groundhog saw its shadow, it would return to its burrow, meaning six more weeks of winter lay ahead. If it didn't see its shadow, then that meant spring was fast approaching.

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Groundhog (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The first-ever North American Groundhog Day took place in 1888 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, currently the hub of American Groundhog Day festivities. The tradition arrived in Canada much later in Wiarton, Ontario, when resident Mac Mackenzie, seeking an excuse for a celebration, initiated the first Groundhog Day event in 1956. To spread the word, he delivered invitations resembling press releases, one of which reached a reporter. At the event, McKenzie and others threw a button-adorned fur hat in the snow and photographed it, claiming it was a groundhog. The infamous photograph made it into the Toronto Star, gathering nationwide attention. For 60 years, Canada's main Groundhog Day event has taken place in Wiarton, Ontario.

Later on, in the 1980s, McKenzie and other Wiarton residents spotted an albino groundhog, which they decided to call Wiarton Willie. Since this discovery, more visitors started coming from all over to witness Willie and his successors to predict spring's arrival.

Wiarton Willie and Punxsutawney Phil aren't the only groundhogs who make the predictions in North America. There's also Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie Sam, Manitoba's Winnipeg Willow, Quebec's Fred and Alberta's Balzac Billy.

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Groundhog Day from Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (Photo by Anthony Quintano/Wikimedia Commons)

The 1993 movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Annie MacDowell, added to the tradition's hype. Since the film's release, nearly 30,000 people have visited Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, each year to celebrate Groundhog Day.

As fun as the tradition is, groundhog predictions have rarely been accurate. Data gathered from several decades show that Canadian groundhogs have been correct only 37 percent of the time. But even so, there's nothing wrong with being optimistic about an early spring.

This post originally appeared on the Nature Conservancy of Canada's blog, Land Lines.

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