Groundhog Day’s biggest star is Phil, but the holiday’s deep roots extend well beyond Punxsutawney

KUTZTOWN, Pa. — The spotlight will be on Gobbler’s Knob in western Pennsylvania early Friday morning, when the handlers of a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil will announce whether he’s seen his own shadow and predicts there will be six more weeks of winter — or not, which indicates an early spring.

Thousands of people are expected to attend the annual event that exploded in popularity after the 1993 Bill Murray film, “Groundhog Day.”

It is part of a tradition rooted in European agricultural life and marks the midpoint between the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, and the spring equinox. It is also a time of year that appears in the Celtic calendar and the Christian holiday Candlemas.

And in eastern and central Pennsylvania, where people of German descent have watched the groundhog emerge from hibernation annually for centuries, there is a tradition of groundhog clubs and parties independent of Phil.

Some dismiss the Punxsutawney event as an unworthy competitor to their own festivities, which they say predicts more accurate weather. There have been weather-predicting groundhogs in at least 28 U.S. states and Canadian provinces, and there have been less formal celebrations everywhere.

One thing it is not: serious business.

“We know this is stupid; we know this is fun,” said Marcy Galando, executive director of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. “We want people to come here with a sense of humor.”

Celtic people throughout Europe marked the four days halfway between the winter solstice, the spring equinox, the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. What the Celts called Imbolc also occurs when Christians celebrate Candlemas, timed to the presentation of Jesus by Joseph and Mary in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Ancient people looked to the sun, stars and animal behavior to guide agricultural practices and other decisions, and the practice of watching an animal emerge from hibernation to predict the weather has roots in a similar German tradition where badgers and bears are involved. The Pennsylvania Germans apparently replaced the marmot, which is endemic to the eastern and midwestern United States.

Historians have found a reference to weather forecasts for groundhogs in early February among families of German descent in Morgantown, Pennsylvania, in an 1841 diary, according to the late Don Yoder, a University of Pennsylvania professor whose 2003 book on Groundhog Day explored the Celtic connection.

Yoder concluded that the festival has roots in “ancient, undoubtedly prehistoric weather stories.”

Punxsutawney is an area where Pennsylvania Germans settled – and in the late 1980s they began celebrating the holiday by picnicking, hunting and eating groundhogs.

Members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, founded in 1899, care for Phil in a custom space next to the Punxsutawney Memorial Library – where there is a window overlooking the creature’s lair.

The Punxsutawney marmot makes predictions, but it is not always predictable. The designated groundhog appeared before dawn in 1929 and did not emerge until late in the afternoon of 1941.

The Bill Murray film caused such a resurgence of interest that two years after the film’s release, event organizers expressed concern about rowdy crowds drinking all night, people climbing trees and others stripping down to their underwear . In 1998, a groundhog club leader wearing a $4,000 groundhog suit reported being attacked by half a dozen young men.

Alcohol is now banned at Gobbler’s Knob, Phil’s haunt, about 77 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

The early festivities in Punxsutawney were followed in 1907 by people in Quarryville, a farming area in Lancaster County in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania. The 240 or so members of the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge there report Octoraro Orphie’s winter predictions, or at least through his well-preserved remains.

Charlie Hart, chairman of the board for the Quarryville Lodge, said the organization hosts dinners and other social events throughout the year, but largely focuses on Groundhog Day.

Hart calls Orphie a much better forecaster than Phil.

“Octoraro Orphie has never been wrong,” Hart said. “This is the 116th year and in the previous 115 years he has been right on the money every year.”

The groundhog is a member of the squirrel family and related to chipmunks and prairie dogs. It is also known as a woodchuck, a whistling pig – or in the parlance of Pennsylvania Dutch, a language with German roots, a ‘grundsau’.

Groundhogs are herbivores that are themselves edible to humans, although not widely consumed. Their lifespan in the wild is typically two or three years.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission says about 36,000 hunters killed more than 200,000 marmots last year.

Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau found groundhog a bit smelly to clean, with a thick skin.

“It was actually very tasty, there’s no doubt about that – and to my taste it’s more like beef than venison,” Lau said. “The whole family ate it and liked it, and everyone was concerned about it.”

Some chefs recommend that marmots are best taken when young and after the clover is in bloom, as a clover diet is thought to improve the flavor of the meat.

Beginning in the 1930s, groundhog lodges opened in eastern Pennsylvania. They were social clubs with similarities to Freemasonry.

Intended to preserve German culture and traditions in Pennsylvania, clubs sometimes punished those caught speaking anything other than their Pennsylvania Dutch language at meetings. Traditionally they were all-male groups and fifteen such clubs are still active.

They all share the unifying characteristic of a groundhog’s weather forecast, said William W. Donner, professor of anthropology at Kutztown University and author of “Serious Nonsense,” a book about such lodges and other efforts to preserve Germany’s heritage.

“I think it’s just one of these traditional rituals that people like to participate in, that maybe takes them away from modern life for 15 minutes,” says Donner.

There have been a number of well-intentioned attempts to determine Phil’s accuracy, but what “six weeks of winter” means is debatable. Claims that a groundhog has or has not seen its shadow—and that it can convey that to a human—are also good territory for skeptics and the humorless.

By all accounts, Phil predicts more winters much more often than an early spring.

Groundhogs are usually solitary creatures that emerge in the middle of winter to find a mate. The science behind whether they can make accurate weather forecasts is problematic at best.

Among the skeptics are the National Centers for Environmental Information, within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The government agency last year compared Phil’s record with US national temperatures over the past decade and found he was right only 40% of the time.