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What is a Groundhog and Why Does it Have a Holiday?

What is a Groundhog and Why Does it Have a Holiday?

Similar to Sadie Hawkins Day in November, the US calendar has several other special traditions that are fun to celebrate even though they aren't major, official holidays.

One of these special days focuses on a small, furry creature who people say has the power to see the future!

This time, we'll take a look at Groundhog Day, its history and how it is celebrated.

What’s a groundhog?

Three hedgehogs resting on a rock

Before we can talk about the holiday, we must first introduce the animals themselves.

Groundhogs are a kind of mammal that can be found in the eastern parts of the United States as well as Alaska and Canada. They look similar to large squirrels, with furry bodies that can grow to as large as about 68 cm (or almost 27 inches).

Groundhogs have short tails and small, powerful legs that let them burrow, or dig, into the ground with ease. They are very intelligent creatures and can even whistle to communicate with one another.

They are also known by many other names, including woodchuck, whistlepig, Canada marmot and monax. Monax means "digger" in the Algonquian language of some groups of Native American people.

The history of Groundhog Day

A man walking through a snowy park on a cold winter day

Now that we know a bit about groundhogs, what exactly is Groundhog Day?

To understand, we must go back to a traditional European religious festival called Candlemas. On February 2, Christians would bring candles to church in order to receive blessings, or good fortune, for the remainder of winter.

When this tradition was brought to Germany, a new and less-spiritual detail was introduced: if a hedgehog (another small mammal) came out of the ground and saw its shadow on Candlemas Day, winter's bad weather would continue for six more weeks. 

When German immigrants arrived in America, they brought this festival with them. In the US, however, the special animal was changed from a hedgehog to the groundhog we have today.

How is Groundhog Day celebrated?

A Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, PA

In reality, a groundhog's shadow has no connection to changes in the weather! However, people still enjoy the idea that it can "predict" the end or continuation of winter every February.

Today, one of the biggest Groundhog Day celebrations takes place in Punxsutawney, a town in the US state of Pennsylvania. Here is where it is said the festival was first mentioned in a newspaper, back in the year 1886.

Since then, the town has enthusiastically celebrated the event, with thousands of people from around the country coming to see the famous groundhog "Punxsutawney Phil" and to enjoy talent shows, food, music and dancing.

This town and its celebration received a big boost in popularity after the release of the American comedy film Groundhog Day in 1993. The film takes place during the festival and tells the story of a man who lives the same day over and over again in a strange time loop.

An early spring?

People enjoy having a fun event or tradition to help take their minds off the gloomy and cold winter weather. Although the most famous festival takes place in Punxsutawney, Groundhog Day is celebrated in cities across the US and Canada.

But even if you can't visit these places yourself, you can still watch a live stream of an event to see if the groundhog sees its shadow!