An Animal That Predicts the Weather?

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“Six more weeks of winter or an early spring? On February 2nd, we won’t rely on our local meteorologist for the forecast. Instead we’ll wait for the prediction from a groundhog.

The tradition of Groundhog Day began in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in 1887 but its origins date back to an early Christian tradition in Europe called Candlemas. That’s when leaders in the church would bless and distribute candles needed in homes for winter.

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It was thought that the number of candles distributed was an indication of how long and cold the winters would be. In Germany, a hedgehog was added to the mix. If the hedgehog cast a shadow on Candlemas Day, it would mean long weeks of cold and snow ahead.

Germans were among the first settlers in the Pennsylvania area.

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When German settlers arrived in the 1700s, they brought the celebration of Candlemas with them. German tradition holds that if the sun comes out on Candlemas, the hedgehog will see its shadow and six more weeks of winter will follow. If no shadow is seen, legend says spring will come early.

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They noted that there were many groundhogs in the region that resembled the hedgehogs in Europe, so they became the animal of choice to carry on the tradition.The German settles in Pennsylvania continued the tradition but used a groundhog rather than a hedgehog.

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A little more about groundhogs: Also called woodchucks, they hibernate beginning in late fall and continue to sleep throughout most of the winter. In February, male groundhogs come out of their burrows to look for a mate.

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It was this emergence that most likely started the practice of weather prediction, even though the groundhogs return to hibernation until March.

Punxsutawney Phil, named for the area that originated Groundhog Day in the U.S., is the most famous groundhog.The name Punxsutawney, the town in Pennsylvania where the groundhog ceremony takes place every year, comes from the Indian name for the location “ponksad-uteney”, which means “the town of the sandflies”.Since 1887, he has seen his shadow 97 times and has not seen it 15 times (nine years were not recorded). According to professional meteorologists, this is only a 39 percent success rate.

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The first official Groundhog day was on February 2, 1887, at Gobbler’s Knob, about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, although its first reference can be found in 1841.

Today it is celebrated in the US and Canada, with the most popular ceremony in Punxsutawney, although there are several others across both countries. Crowds in Punxsutawney can be as large as 40,000, and have increased in popularity since the Bill Murray film.

The commercially and critically successful 1993 Murray film is about Phil Connors, an arrogant weather man sent to cover the Punxsutawney ceremony. He subsequently lives groundhog day repeatedly until he gets the day “right”. In 2006, the film was added to the United States National Film Registry as being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

But regardless of whether the groundhog’s predictions are accurate or not, the tradition gives us something to look forward to – Spring is just around the corner!”

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