The real Groundhog Day, explained

Friday, 2nd February 2018, 9:30 am
Updated Friday, 2nd February 2018, 9:35 am

“‘Okay campers, rise and shine! Don’t forget your booties because it’s cold out there today!”

The traditional North American holiday of Groundhog Day is immortalised by the film of the same name.

But while many of us in the UK love the Bill Murray classic, we have little idea about what the February 2 celebrations are actually about – despite living them over and over and over and over and…

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

It's actually about weather

The premise behind the Groundhog Day celebrations is actually a traditional weather prediction.

People gather around the burrow of the animal as he awakes from his winter hibernation.

If there are clouds in the sky as he emerges, then spring will come early. But, as the story goes, if it’s a clear sunny day then the groundhog will catch a glimpse of its shadow and scamper back into the hole, and there will be six more weeks of bad weather.

It began in Pennsylvania

Original records of this weird and wonderful celebration date back to the 19th century. The tradition has origins with Pennsylvania’s German population and stems back to Europe, where badgers were originally used in the ritual.

Groundhog day is set in Gobbler's Knob, Pennsylvania (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

Despite celebrations elsewhere across North America, Pennsylvania is still by far the biggest celebrator – with food, speeches and plays happening on the day. It’s also their custom for all speakers to talk in Pennsylvania German dialect or otherwise pay a fine.

There’s a celebrity groundhog

The borough of Punxsutawney boasts a furry friend with quite the reputation. ‘Punxsutawney Phil’, or just ‘Phil’ as he’s known locally, is the area’s resident weather-predicting groundhog.

Phil spends February 2 in his temporary home at ‘Gobbler’s Knob’ as thousands of residents gather round to wait for his decision on the weather.

The rodent has become a renowned figure, making appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show, being beamed live to New York’s Times Square in 2001 and even meeting President Ronald Reagan. (All, according to folklore, the actions of one groundhog).

Phil is looked after all year round by the Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle – a select group of members noticeable for their top hats.

According to legend, once Punxsutawney Phil emerges from Gobbler’s Knob he speaks to the Groundhog Club president in ‘Groundhogese’ – a language only privy to the current president.

It can get hairy

The scene above shows Wisconsin’s own ‘Jimmy The Groundhog’ deciding to upstage Mayor Jonathan Freund by sinking his teeth into his ear on live television during their annual celebrations.

Freund went on to ‘pardon’ and absolve Jimmy for his misconduct, but ended up losing the election three weeks later – finishing in last place.

There have even been deaths

New York City Mayors have had a series of run-ins with Staten Island Zoo resident ‘Chuck’.

In 2009, Michael Bloomberg was attempting to coax Chuck out of his wooden shelter when the groundhog decided to bite the Mayor’s finger.

Bloomberg’s successor Bill De Blasio also managed to annoy poor Chuck after dropping his ‘niece’ Charlotte during 2014’s annual celebrations. Charlotte went on to die a few days later and De Blasio hasn’t been allowed near Chuck since.

You can watch Groundhog Day live

If you can’t make it to Punxsutawney in time to watch Phil emerge from Gobbler’s Knob, then the good people of Pennsylvania are streaming the celebrations live, via their website.

It's actually about weather

The premise behind the Groundhog Day celebrations is actually a traditional weather prediction.

People gather... Only joking.

Happy Groundhog Day.