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Groundhog Day's history: How Punxsutawney Phil became an international, weather-predicting celebrity

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

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Every year on Feb. 2, Punxsutawney Phil’s faithful followers eagerly await word on whether the most famous weather-forecasting groundhog has caught a glimpse of his shadow at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

On Groundhog Day, it’s bad news for fans of warmer weather if Phil emerges from his burrow and sees his shadow, which signifies six more weeks of winter. If his shadow is nowhere to be found, however, Phil has predicted an early spring.

The groundhog’s forecasts might be fun to anticipate, but they’re not always correct, according to Stormfax, which reported that Phil has only gotten it right 39 percent of the time.

The popular tradition, made even more famous with the release of the film “Groundhog Day” in 1993, dates back to the late 1800s.

Punxsutawney Phil - AP Photo

In this Feb. 2, 2016, photo, Groundhog Club handler John Griffiths holds Punxsutawney Phil, the weather-predicting groundhog, during the annual celebration of Groundhog Day on Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)


The crowd size has grown tremendously since the first Groundhog Day celebration took place in 1887 at Gobbler’s Knob.

“Today, we’re getting up to 35,000 people showing up here in town,” said Punxsutawney Groundhog Club President Bill Deeley. “We’re getting more people showing up here than [the amount that] show up at a professional ball game.”

Groundhog Day’s origins

It originated in Punxsutawney, a town with German ancestry, Deeley said. The Germans used a hedgehog to let them know if spring would arrive early or if winter would go on as normal.

It’s rooted in the Christian Candlemas Day tradition, according to History.com. Clergyman would distribute and bless candles which represented the coldness and length of winter.

The Romans brought this tradition to the Germans, who took this concept further by choosing an animal to predict the weather, and the custom continued as settlers arrived in Pennsylvania.

The Germans concluded that if the sun appeared on Candlemas Day, which also falls on Feb. 2, an animal would cast a shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of winter.

“When the German settlers all came over here, we didn’t really have a true hedgehog, and the next thing would be the way-out cousin, the groundhog,” Deeley said.

The groundhog, also known as a woodchuck, made a great substitute as they were plentiful in Pennsylvania, and the animal has been used to predict the early arrival of spring or a continued winter season ever since.

In 1887 a local newspaper editor declared Phil, whose full title is “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary,” to be the United States’ only true weather-forecasting groundhog in 1887.

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Unfortunately for the groundhog, in those days, the event usually culminated with the weather forecaster being served and eaten as a main entrée, said Deeley.

Times have changed, and now Punxsutawney Phil, who was once previously known as Br’er Groundhog, is treated as a celebrity, with thousands of onlookers from all over the globe visiting Gobbler’s Knob to watch his predictions.

The Inner Circle

“You’ll see over the years, we’ve worn a top hat and tux and tails on Groundhog Day,” said Deeley, who has been a member of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle since 1986.

“It’s in honor of Phil, to show him the royalty that he deserves and the special individual he is,” he said.

A group of 15 individuals comprise the Inner Circle, a Punxsutawney-based group that carries on the annual Groundhog Day tradition. They’re responsible for planning the events and ensuring that Phil is taken care of and fed.

“It’s definitely a big part of your life,” said AJ Dereume, one of Phil’s co-handlers. “If you’re in the Inner Circle, Groundhog Day is like your second job, but you don’t get paid for it; it’s a labor of love.”

According to Groundhog.org, Punxsutawney Phil comes out of his burrow and speaks to the Groundhog Club president in “Groundhogese,” a language only understood by the Inner Circle’s current president.

The president then translates Phil’s prediction to the world.

Deeley said the increased exposure since the popular film hit theaters has been great for the small community of Punxsutawney, home to more than 5,800 residents.

“Groundhog Day is designed to be fun,” Deeley said.

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