Did the Groundhog See Their Shadow — and Why Do We Care?

By Jamie GreysonLast Updated Feb 2, 2021 2:49:36 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

As is tradition, Pennsylvania’s own Punxsutawney Phil emerged from their burrow this morning, ready to forecast just how long 2021’s winter will last. But February 2, which usually means crowds and cameras and fireworks, looked a bit different this year. According to the Associated Press, the Groundhog Day festivities were limited to "members of Phil’s ‘inner circle,’" all of whom gathered at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, at 7:25 a.m. to rouse the furry oracle.

At one point, the event’s livestream crowd swelled to an impressive 15,000 viewers — all to see if a groundhog seer on a tiny hill 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh would glimpse their shadow. For those who may have evaded this strange little tradition, here’s the rundown: If a groundhog prognosticator sees their shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter, but, if they don’t, an early spring is ahead of us. This year, Phil predicted more winter, which isn’t surprising coming off of 2020 — an entire year that felt like a recapitulation of the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day (1993), which sees the main character reliving the same day again and again and again. And while we may have Phil’s prediction, the question remains: Why do we care?

The Origins of Groundhog Day

Since it marks the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, February 2 has been an important day throughout history, from the Celts’ Imbolc to Christianity’s Candlemas, Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, which stems from the Celts’ pagan festival. According to History.com, "Christians believed that a sunny Candlemas meant another 40 days of cold and snow." This notion was eventually adopted by German people, who quickly added a furry critter — some sources say a badger, while others say a hedgehog — to the seasonal prognostication.

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Photo Courtesy: Groundhog.org

Sounds familiar, right? Well, German immigrants, who first came to Pennsylvania in the 18th century, continued to turn to furry seers — though they traded badgers for groundhogs. In 1886, this little custom became something much more thanks to newspaper editor Clymer Freas and the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. On that first fateful day, the Punxsutawney Spirit noted that "Today is groundhog day, and up to the time of going to press, the beast has not seen [their] shadow."

The following year, things were made more official and the ceremony was held for the first time at Gobbler’s Knob. Over the course of their 135-year stint at Gobbler’s Knob, Phil has predicted winter a whopping 106 times. According to the Associated Press, 10 years of predictions are lost to history, but, on record, Phil has forecasted spring just 20 times.

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Groundhog Day’s Surprising Success (and Accuracy)

While 15,000 livestream viewers may sound like a massive number, the annual in-person gatherings are usually even bigger. On average, the crowd swells to 20,000 shivering people — particularly impressive considering that the town is home to just under 6,000. However, February 2, 2020, set a record: The Groundhog Club estimates that a whopping 40,000 people attended the last pre-COVID-19 Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney. In fact, the local high school doesn’t attend class on Groundhog Day because the town needs all those buses to transport folks to and from Gobbler’s Knob.

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Photo Courtesy: Christina Horsten/picture alliance/Getty Images

But massive crowds aren’t the only way to measure Phil’s success. In fact, the prognosticator brings in the big bucks for the small Pennsylvania town. According to the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau and the Punxsutawney Area Chamber of Commerce, Groundhog Day rakes in over $1 million every year. While another long winter prediction may be all doom and gloom, that annual boost to the local economy is certainly something to smile about. "The economic impact Pennsylvania’s most unique holiday has on the town of Punxsutawney and surrounding communities is astounding," Kelly Walker, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Tourism Bureau, told Time. In fact, in years when the holiday falls on a weekend, the bureau has projected that long-weekend tourists could bring in closer to $5 million.

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Another measure of success? Accuracy. That is, how good is Phil, really? It kind of depends on who you ask. According to the Inner Circle, Phil holds an impressive 100% accuracy rate, but their records are closer to 80% accurate. What does that mean? Well, if a prediction is wrong, it was clearly the person in charge of translating Phil’s Groundhogese, not Phil himself, who messed up. More impartial sources boast that Phil has been right 50% of the time over the last decade, with the groundhog’s total accuracy ranging between 35% and 40%.

Groundhog Day Celebrations Throughout the Country

Undoubtedly, the celebrations in Punxsutawney involve the most pomp and circumstance. Phil and their wife Phyliss, who call the Punxsutawney Memorial Library home, are the biggest burrowing celebs — so much so that Phil sips an eternal life-giving elixir to stay youthful. Since the 1960s, members of Phil’s Inner Circle, who handle Phil and read out his predictions in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, have shown their respect by donning top hats and suits on the day.

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Photo Courtesy: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

But this lighthearted suspension of disbelief isn’t contained to Pennsylvania. In fact, groundhogs throughout the United States and Canada have tried their paws at predicting how the seasons will shake out. Some of our favorites include Nova Scotia native Shubencadie Sam, who, being so far east, gets to make the day’s first prediction; Wiarton Willie, an albino groundhog from Ontario; and Staten Island Chuck, who first rose to notoriety in 2009 when he bit then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg — and, later, made scandalous headlines again when Mayor Bill de Blasio dropped the critter.