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German settlers started Groundhog Day traditions

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Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 10:07 pm | Updated: 11:42 pm, Tue May 1, 2012.

Pennsylvania is the home of Groundhog Day, a very old tradition of weather forecasting, brought to America by early German settlers. On Feb. 2, the groundhog emerges from his hole and if he sees his shadow, he quickly crawls back in and goes back to sleep, indicating six more weeks of winter.

On the other hand, should the day be dismal and cloudy, the groundhog won't see his shadow and will stay above ground, foretelling the coming of an early spring — or so the tradition alleges.

In European countries, the day was known as Candlemas Day. Candlemas, before the Reformation, was a religious celebration. It was known as the Feast of Purification of the Virgin Mary, when Christ's parents presented him in the Temple. By Jewish law, the purification took place 40 days after Christ was born, which came on Feb. 14. During this time Jesus' birthday was celebrated on Jan. 6, but with the calendar change of Christmas to Dec. 25, Candlemas fell on Feb. 2. The name Candlemas comes from the custom of blessing candles on this day.

All over Europe this day was traditionally a weather forecasting day, when the sun was seen to make its first stop toward the spring equinox. Thus, this day of decision determined the weather. With the weather predictions arose many superstitions.

It was believed that the six weeks following Candlemas Day, the weather would be the opposite of the day itself. If the sun was shining and the sky clear, it was believed to be only temporary and surely there would be six more weeks of cold and snow. Whereas, if the sky was cloudy and the sun couldn't be seen, winter was finally over.

Animals figured prominently in this weather forecasting day. Most early people believed animals could forecast weather. The Egyptians used bears for prophecy. When the Romans conquered the northern countries, some of their weather rites and traditions were passed on to the Britons, Gauls, and Teutons (early Germans). The English used otters and badgers as weather forecasters.

It was medieval belief that hibernating animals, on Candlemas Day, left their dens to observe the weather, forecasting an early or late planting season. If the otter or badger comes out and sees his shadow, planting will have to wait because of more snow and cold. But if the badger comes out and doesn't see his shadow, farmers can soon start planting their crops.

In Germany it was the badger who predicted the farmers planting time. When German settlers came to America, badgers weren't prominent, especially in Pennsylvania. Thus, the immigrants transferred the weather belief to the groundhog, also known as a woodchuck.

The first German settlers to celebrate the weather prediction tradition, in the early 1800s, were those from Punxsutawney, a small town in Western Pennsylvania. In 1886, this group of settlers was named the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club by the editor of the town's newspaper. On Feb. 2, 1887, their first official trek was made to Gobbler's Knob to seek the forecast of Punxsutawney Phil, the original groundhog.

Thereafter, the groundhog was considered "Seer of Seers" and "King of the Weather Prophets," bringing in thousands of tourists to hear the annual weather forecast on Feb. 2.

Punxsutawney not only has fun-loving rivalry with other Pennsylvania clubs, who have their own groundhog weather traditions, but also those across the country. The closest rival to Punxsutawney is Lancaster Count's Quarryville, the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge, started in 1908. A more recent, out-of-state club, begun in 1948, is the Sun Prairie Groundhog Club of Wisconsin with Groundhog Jimmy doing the forecasting. Atlanta boasts a pig named Gen. Beauregard Lee from Weathering Heights Plantation. This pig is honored at his fete by the Georgia Tech Marching Yellow Jackets playing a fitting song — "Me and My Shadow."

Not everyone takes the weather predictions of the groundhog seriously. As a matter of fact, the groundhog leaves his burrow and stays aground because he's hungry and it's time for romance after a long winter of seclusion.

Regardless of the beliefs, Feb. 2 is a day of fun, not only for Pennsylvania Germans, but tourists as well. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Festival is held every year the week of July 4th with weeklong events for the whole family.

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