Groundhog Day comes from Candlemas Day, observed for centuries in parts of Europe on February 2 where the custom was to have the clergy bless candles and distribute them to the people. This seems to have derived from the pagan celebration of Imbolc — the Feast of the goddess Bridget, or in Christian Ireland St. Bridget’s Day and alternatively “The Purification of the Virgin” commemorating the time when St. Mary presented Jesus at the Temple at Jerusalem. It comes at the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The Roman Legions, it is said, originally brought the tradition to the Germans.
In more modern times, says the old Scottish couplet:
If Candlemas Day is bright and clear
There’ll be two winters in the year
By the 1840s the following idea caught on in the U.S., particularly in Pennsylvania whose earliest settlers were German immigrants. If the groundhog sees its shadow on a “bright and clear” day, six more weeks of winter are ahead.
Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is the headquarters of the celebration where the groundhog “Punxsutawney Phil” regards his shadow at Gobbler’s Knob, a wooded knoll just outside the town. And Bill Murray visited this location (repeatedly) in his movie Groundhog Day.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian