Who’s 131 years old, draws crowds of 40,000, infallibly predicts the weather, and is surrounded by a fan club who dress in top hats and tuxedos?
The answer is, of course, Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog from the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. And yes, all of the above are true (depending on who you ask).
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The tradition of Groundhog Day goes all the way back to 1887. It was first reported by the Punxsutawney Spirit, a local newspaper. The festival celebrates the emergence of a certain groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, from his burrow.
If the groundhog sees his shadow, he has predicted six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow he has predicted an early spring.
However, the custom is actually a lot older than Phil.
Groundhog Day dates back to the Germanic tradition of Dachstag or ‘Badger Day’. This was a folkloric tradition which resembles Groundhog Day almost exactly, with the exception of involving a badger rather than a groundhog.
Who is Punxsutawney Phil?
Punxsutawney Phil is an ageless groundhog who is, according to local legend, has presided over every Groundhog Day. He has survived from the late 19th to the early 21st Century by consuming ‘groundhog punch’ or ‘the elixir of life’. Phil drinks these at the annual Groundhog Picnic which is celebrated in the fall.
Phil’s long life is a real feat considering, in the wild, a groundhog only tends to live for five to seven years.
Any other groundhog who claims to be able to predict the weather is decried as an ‘impostor’.
When he isn’t celebrating his special day, Punxsutawney Phil lives in the town library. He is cared for by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle. These are an elite group of Punxsutawnians who can be identified by their dress code: top hats and tuxedos.
Punxsutawney Phil spends Groundhog Day in a special home on Gobbler’s Knob. This is located in a rural area around two miles to the south-east of Punxsutawney.
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He is also a major character in Groundhog Day the 1993 film, and its Broadway musical adaption.
What is Groundhog Day?
Of all the traditions in America, few are quite as unique as Groundhog Day.
The ceremony begins well before the sunrise on 2nd February each year. Punxsutawney Phil is brought to his part-time home at Gobbler’s Knob and placed inside.
A huge crowd of 40,000 ‘phaithful phollowers’ (eight times the entire population of Punxsutawney on a regular day) draws in to see the groundhog. Rudely awakened by the noise of the crowd, Punxsutawney Phil leaves his burrow, with the help of the Inner Circle, makes his way to the top of the tree stump.
At the top of the tree stump, Phil reveals whether he has seen his shadow on his journey. He does so by conversing with the president of the Inner Circle in ‘groundhogese’. The president is able to converse with Phil due to owning an acacia wooden cane which confers the ability upon him. Phil directs the president to a pre-prepared scroll announcing either an early spring or a long winter.
How often is the groundhog correct?
Punxsutawney Phil is absolutely infallible. He has never, in his 131-year history, ever been wrong about whether or not winter will continue. However, some of the predictions about the winter made on Groundhog Day have been incorrect.
In 130 predictions, Phil has predicted a long winter 103 times and an early spring 18 times. Sadly, there are no records for the other occasions.
According to Stormfax, a local weather service, as of 2016, the predictions have been correct just over 39 percent of the time.
So what gives? Well, it turns out the president of the Inner Circle is to blame. Misinterpretation of Punxsutawney Phil is possible due to the president’s human error in translating the message.
While Punxsutawney Phil is undoubtedly irked by this failure on the president’s part, in 2013 it saved his life. In that year, a Butler County, Ohio prosecutor named Michael Gmoser sent an email issuing an indictment calling for the death penalty for Punxsutawney Phil. This was for “misrepresentation of early spring, an Unclassified Felony, and against the peace and dignity of the State Of Ohio”. On that day, temperatures were near a record low and remained so for days.
Thankfully, the prosecutor pardoned Phil due to the president taking the blame for the mistake.