Groundhog Day 2021: Groundhog Day is On February 2 And We Wait With Bated (And Ice-Cold)

Happy Groundhog Day 2021! Did Phil see his shadow? Will we enjoy an early spring? Find out—and learn more about this unusual holiday—which has its roots in astronomy and some weird European traditions, including a famous weather-predicting groundhog!

When Is Groundhog Day? What Is Groundhog Day?

Groundhog Day is celebrated every year on February 2. Although the modern holiday is a uniquely American tradition, the history stretches hundreds of years back to European traditions and even ancient times.

The most famous tradition today involves a groundhog predicting the conclusion of winter by seeing his own shadow. According to weather lore:

  • If the plump prognosticator emerges from his hole on a clear day and sees his shadow, he will retreat and there will be six more weeks of wintry weather.
    OR
  • If he emerges from his burrow and does NOT see his shadow, then early spring weather is right around the corner.

What most don’t realize is that Groundhog Day is actually rooted in astronomy—and the movement of the Earth around the Sun.

In the Northern Hemisphere, this date marks the midpoint between the winter solstice in December and the spring equinox in March. (Note: In the Southern Hemisphere, Groundhog Day marks the halfway point between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox.)

More about that history below. Onto the real question:

Groundhog Day 2021: Did Phil See His Shadow?

We’re talking about that most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, the Western Pennsylvania groundhog. (Yes, there are other groundhog celebrations as well such as the one in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.)

This groundhog’s full name is actually “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather-Prophet Extraordinary.” It was so proclaimed by the “Punxsutawney Groundhog Club” in 1887, the same year they declared Punxsutawney to be the weather capital of the world.

Every February 2, the “faithful followers of Phil” watch with bated breath as the groundhog emerges from his burrow. Will he see his shadow and retreat? Or, will he stay above ground in anticipation of an early spring?

The Verdict! 

In 2021, the celebration went virtual and we were there. (In other words, we got up early to watch the show!). Punxsutawney Phil predicted:

  • 6 more weeks of winter there will be!

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How Accurate is the Groundhog’s Prediction?

According to NOAA, Punxsutawney Phil has accurately predicted the coming of spring 40% of the time. That’s not exactly a great track record. (Our guess is that “Phil” isn’t naturally emerging from his borrow to the paparazzi cameras.)

Of course, it’s all in good humor. As the Almanac says, “If he sees his shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter; if he doesn’t, it’ll be six weeks until spring.” Get it?

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The Interesting History of Groundhog Day

Imbolc

Originally, Groundhog Day was a Celtic festival marking the year’s first cross-quarter day, or a midpoint between seasons. Read more about the ancient Celtic calendar here.

Celebrated at the beginning of February, the day was called Imbolc—a term from Old Irish that is most often translated as “in the belly”—a reference to the soon-to-arrive lambs of spring. The celebration of Imbolc signaled that the Sun was halfway through its advance towards the spring equinox, and the season of new birth and light was on the horizon.

This day has also been called St. Brigid’s Day, which stems from a mixing of figures and traditions from pagan and Christian beliefs. The Celtic goddess Brigantia is associated with dawn, light, and spring, which are qualities later associated with Brigid of Kildare, a Christian saint (and one of Ireland’s patron saints).

Candlemas

Although it is distinct from Imbolc, the Christian festival of light Candlemas is also observed at this time of year (February 2). The name refers to the candles lit that day in churches, which celebrate the presentation of the Christ Child in the temple of Jerusalem.

Groundhog Day has a rich history based on a deeper meaning; it speaks to the triumph of spring over winter—and birth over death. Again, note the appearance of light over dark with the appearance of candles and dawn—and, of course, the spiritual light of a holier presence.

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Why a Groundhog?

So how does the groundhog fit into this ancient festival? Historically, a groundhog wasn’t the animal of choice: a bear brought the forecast to the people of France and England, while those in Germany looked to a badger for a sign.

In the 1800s, German immigrants to Pennsylvania brought their Candlemas legends with them. Finding no badgers but lots of groundhogs (also called woodchucks or whistlepigs), they adapted the New World species to fit the lore.

Today, that lore has grown into fun winter festivals, with Punxsutawney Phil and furry fellows in other states presiding.

Groundhog peaking up

What Is Groundhog Day’s Connection to Weather?

Since the traditional celebration anticipated the planting of crops, a central focus of the festivities was the forecasting of either an early spring or a lingering winter.

Sunshine on Candlemas was said to indicate the return of winter. Similarly…

When the wind’s in the east on Candlemas Day,
There it will stick till the 2nd of May
.

  • It was not held as a good omen if the day itself was bright and sunny, for that betokened snow and frost to continue to the hiring of the laborers 6 weeks later on Lady Day.
  • If it was cloudy and dark, warmth and rain would thaw out the fields and have them ready for planting.

Our Groundhog Day is a remote survivor of that belief. Though we recognize animal behavior isn’t the only way to judge planting dates, the tradition continues, often with a wink and a smile.

Want to see more accurate planting dates? Check out our Planting Calendar to find dates for starting seeds, transplanting, and harvesting in your area.

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Groundhog Day and Candlemas Lore

If Candlemas [February 2] be mild and gay,
Go saddle your horses and buy them hay;
But if Candlemas be stormy and black,
It carries the winter away on its back
.

Just half your wood and half your hay,
Should be remaining on Candlemas Day
.

On Candlemas Day,
The good goose begins to lay
.

When the wind’s in the east on Candlemas Day,
There it will stick till the 2nd of May
.

On Candlemas Day, if the thorns hang a drop,
You are sure of a good pea crop
.

Wait, What Exactly Is a Groundhog?

The groundhog, also known as a woodchuck or whistlepig, typically makes its home in the brambles and thickets that grow where forests meet fields. There, it digs burrows between 4 and 6 feet deep and up to 40 feet long—removing as much as 700 pounds of dirt in the process.

Like its squirrel relatives, the groundhog eats leaves, grass, flowers, bark, and twigs and climbs trees to reach tender buds or fruit. This furry animal will also go after just about any crop, favoring beans, peas, and carrot tops. It may even take a bite out of every squash or pumpkin in a row, instead of consuming just one. See how to deter groundhogs in the garden.

But the mischief-maker is not all nuisance. Its burrows allow air and water to penetrate the soil and, when abandoned, they become homes for opossums and other small animals. The groundhog itself serves as food for larger creatures, such as bobcats, foxes, and wolves.

With hungry predators on the prowl, it takes courage for a groundhog to emerge from its hole every February to make its forecast. It must take its job very seriously!

Groundhog in snow. Photo by Brain E. Kushner/ShutterStock
Photo by Brain E. Kushner/ShutterStock

What’s the Difference Between a Groundhog and a Woodchuck?

Every year, we’re asked if a groundhog is the same thing as a woodchuck. Yep. There’s no difference (taxonomicaly).  It’s the same borrowing rodent, Marmota monax. The word you use is more of a reflection of where you live. In cold New England, where we can pretty much count on wintry weather no matter what the marmot thinks, the term “woodchuck” is often used. The word comes from a Native American word. The animal’s Algonquin name is wejack or wuchak. What do you call it?

What’s the Weather Forecast?

For a forecast that’s more than folklore, see the Almanac’s long-range predictions (traditionally 80% accurate) or your 5-day weather forecast!

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