NOTE: This article oririginally appeared on our website on February 2, 2012.
What does Groundhog Day have to do with Native American language and history? And how did Punxsutawney Phil, the now-famous groundhog that millions look to for weather predictions, end up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania? Let’s start at the beginning. Groundhog Day, at its most basic, is an astronomical holiday. February 2 falls midway between the December solstice and March equinox.
“Solstices, equinoxes and seasonal midways called cross quarters were vital to ancient people for regulating their calendars and knowing when to plant, when to harvest, when to stay, when to move,” says an article about the seasons on Archaeoastronomy.com.
As illustrated in the image to the left, the equinoxes and solstices are separated by 90-degree angles. The cross quarters bisect those and served as Celtic boundaries for the four seasons—Beltaine, Lughnasad, Samain and Imbolc. Imbolc corresponds to Groundhog Day and the beginning of spring and gave way to Candlemas, its church-approved name, when clergy in Europe would bless and distribute candles marking the end of winter. People also looked to a hedgehog for its shadowy prediction.
An old English song goes like this: If Candlemas be fair and bright,Come, Winter, have another flight;If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,Go Winter, and come not again.So it goes today. If Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, it’s an omen for six more weeks of bad weather. But if the day is cloudy and he doesn’t see his shadow, it’s time for spring.
But how did Punxsutawney become Groundhog Day central? The first Europeans to settle in Pennsylvania were the Germans early in the 18th century. They found an abundance of groundhogs in the area. The creatures weren’t the hedgehogs they were used to back home, but they figured the groundhog would do. The earliest observance of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney was 1886 reported The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper. The celebration moved to Gobbler’s Knob—where it’s still held—in 1887, the same year the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was formed. The club named Phil its furry prognosticator back in 1887, and then declared his immortality. Every summer the group feeds Phil a “magic elixir of life,” which members say extends Phil’s life by seven years. Phil even got a movie out of his fame. In 1993, Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell starred in Groundhog Day, which wasn’t actually filmed in Punxsutawney, but in Woodstock, Illinios.
Punxsutawney is in the hills of the Appalachian Plateau and takes its name from past inhabitants. The name itself comes from the Native American word ponki for sand fly. Indians called the place Ponsutenink, “the town of the ponkis.” The area was a campsite used by Native Americans halfway between the Allegheny and Susquehanna rivers. Ponsutenink was on the Shamokin Path, the earliest known trail to the east.
At various times the area was inhabited by Shawnee, Delaware, Seneca and Iroquois. The groundhog even has Native roots. The burrowing rodent is also called a woodchuck, which according to the Cornell Chronicle, Natives once used as hides for the soles of moccasins. Even the word woodchuck has Native origins. Many sources say it came from the Algonquian word wuchak, which English colonists turned into woodchuck. The World English Dictionary says it came from the Narragansett word for woodchuck ockqutchaun and the Cree word for fisher, a member of the weasel family, otcheck. According to Native-Langauges.org, “the Wabanaki tribes of New England and the Canadian Maritimes have a mythological woodchuck character, named Grandmother Woodchuck, who is the adoptive grandmother of their culture hero Glooskap. She is usually depicted as a wise elder whose patience and wisdom teaches lessons to the good-hearted but often impetuous Glooskap.” Watch Phil’s prediction via live webcast starting online at VisitPA.com. See his 2012 prediction: Punxsutawney Phil’s Inner Circle: Groundhog Day movie trailer: