Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day get a lot of credit for travel holidays, but save a spot on your itinerary for Groundhog Day. This quirky holiday has surprising origins, old traditions, delightful surprises and plenty of reasons to travel.
Ever wonder about Groundhog Day? Where did it come from? How is it celebrated? Or, if other cultures around the world pay attention to it? This article will give you those answers.
What is Groundhog Day?
Groundhog Day is one of the quirkier American holidays. It takes place on Feb. 2, just when winter is starting to get old, and the promise of spring is in the air. The whole point of Groundhog day is to forecast when the doldrums of winter might end and give way to the burgeoning spring, What makes the holiday so odd is the forecaster: the groundhog, also known as the woodchuck.
A groundhog is a species of marmot. It happens to be the largest member of the squirrel family. These mammals spend their summers gorging themselves and storing up plenty of fat so they can sleep away the winter’s chill in their burrows. According to traditional folklore, when the sleepy groundhog finally emerges from its burrow in late winter, one of two things can happen. In scenario one, the groundhog sees its own shadow in the early February sunshine. Legend has it, the groundhog seeing its shadow means there will be six more weeks of winter. If the groundhog emerges from the burrow and does not see its shadow, this means spring is just around the corner and will arrive early – sometime before the Vernal Equinox, around March 20 in 2017.
In modern times, a single groundhog has been declared the standard-bearing groundhog – the Prognosticator of Prognosticators. This groundhog is a specimen named Punxsutawney Phil, who lives in Punxsutawney, Pa. On Groundhog Day, an entourage of fancy-dressed gentlemen lead groundhog Phil to Gobbler’s Knob to see or not see his shadow and infer a prediction. This year marks the 131st Groundhog Day.
What are the origins of Groundhog Day?
Pennsylvania doesn’t have exclusive claim to the wacky prognosticating groundhog holiday. Groundhog Day has Roman origins. Back in the day, it was known by Christians as Candlemas Day. On Candlemas Day, which marked when Jesus Christ’s parents took him to the temple, Christians blessed and distributed candles for blessings. The belief was that a clear sky on Candlemas Day would cast shadows frightening the groundhog. The groundhog seeing its shadow meant a longer winter ahead. The holiday spread to Germany through the Roman legion. The Germans took the tradition and added a furry twist to it, including a hedgehog or a badger.
When the tradition made its way to America, badgers and hedgehogs were sparse. However, plenty of groundhogs and marmots filled the need. So, the marmot took on the mantle of foretelling or prophesying winter on Candlemas Day.
The new tradition stuck, and soon Phil and his groundhog brethren were predicting the weather year after year. Phil is not the only famous groundhog with weather-predicting abilities. There is also pet groundhogs in many places:
- New York’s groundhog is Dunkirk Dave.
- Nova Scotia has Shubenacadie Sam
- Ontario calls theirs Wiarton Willie
- Georgia went military with General Beauregard “Beau” Lee
- Vermont went for Peewee the Woodchuck
- And of course Staten Island’s late Chuck, who may or may not have died from internal injuries after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio accidentally dropped him.
See the fat marmot
If you can make your way to Pennsylvania for the big day, you’ll find plenty of fun activities waiting for you besides watching a fat marmot predict the weather. There is:
- an ice carving show,
- a walking tour of sculptures of Phil,
- dancing, a top hat decorating competition,
- a historical hayride tour of downtown Punxsutawney,
- groundhog cookie decorating,
- a showing of “Groundhog Day,” the movie classic starring Bill Murray,
- and even Groundhog Day weddings!
Thousands of people flock to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day, and some of them are couples getting ready to get hitched. Punxsutawney proudly supports their own Groundhog Day wedding chapel, where couples can tie the knot for the prognostication day. Some claim it’s an easy enough anniversary to remember. Others say they, like Bill Murray’s hapless character in “Groundhog Day,” want to relive their wedding day over and over. Groundhog Day weddings the mayor of the city officiates the weddings.
If you’re a huge fan of the movie “Groundhog Day,” you should skip going to Punxsutawney and instead see furry prognosticator Woodstock Willie in Woodstock, Ill. That’s where the movie was filmed. You can visit the location of the dance (the Woodstock Moose Lodge), the Pennsylvanian Hotel (the Woodstock Opera House), the Alpine Theater (the Woodstock Theater) and more. Walking tours are available for diehard fans.
Other weather prediction traditions
It may surprise you, but Groundhog Day isn’t your only solution to your weather-predicting animal needs. In Romania, Feb. 2 isn’t Groundhog Day – it’s Ground Bear Day. The concept is somewhat similar to its North American counterpart but may make a bit more sense. Romania doesn’t have a lot of groundhogs, but they do have a lot of bears. On Ground Bear Day, if the bears return to their caves after emerging, it means winter will be longer this year. If the bears appear for good, spring is on its way.
In Germany, there’s an old 17th-18th-century tradition where frogs are the great weather prognosticators. Frogs placed in jars with small ladders are supposed to climb the ladder to catch the higher-flying insects.
As it is, plenty of animals apparently predict the weather. Frogs get another nod here. Their croaking volume increases before severe weather approaches. Keep that in mind if you’re hearing some major ribbits before a summer storm. Ladybugs are said to swarm when warm weather is on the horizon.
If you’re going to travel and experience Groundhog Day elsewhere in the world, follow this advice:
- Dress warmly: Trusting Punxsutawney Phil is one thing, but you should probably check a more current weather forecast. The forecast for Groundhog Day in Pennsylvania could reach highs in the low 30s, lows in the high teens with snowflakes. Make sure you pack plenty of warm clothes for outdoor activities. Dress in layers to help regulate your body’s temperature.
2. Watch out for hypothermia: Your body’s inability to warm itself can occur on frigid days. Hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Hypothermia can affect blood flow to the brain, which makes it especially dangerous, as it can cause confusion and dizziness. Look for signs of shivering or exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech or drowsiness. Since hypothermia often causes confusion, you may not realize when this is happening to you. So, have your friends look out for one another. When you recognize these signs in your travel companion, get them inside immediately and remove any wet clothing. If the affected person’s body temperature is under 95 degrees, call emergency services.
3. Drink in moderation: Groundhog Day can be a festive occasion with plenty of beer and alcohol. Adults may want to imbibe as the day goes on. If you choose to drink, it’s wise to drink responsibly. In any crowd settings, it’s smart to stay alert, and on the lookout, to avoid accidents and altercations. Drinking to stay warm is not a good idea. Alcohol lowers the core temperature of your body, which can cause you to cool down faster. Water is your best hydration resource.
4. Careful on the road: The movie “Groundhog Day” had a car crash that ended up okay, but there could be worse in store for you if you’re not careful on the road. Remember winter driving skills before you join the Groundhog Day fun. Drive more slowly and give drivers ahead of you some extra room, in case you slide on a slick surface and need more distance to come to a stop. Always turn on your headlights to increase your visibility. Drifting snow can make it hard to see other vehicles on the road. If you become stranded, stay near your car and call emergency services. Keep a blanket, flashlight, water, and a small candle in the car. The candle is useful for heat.
5. Watch out for Phil’s friends: If you’re out hunting for more groundhogs, be wary. These animals may not have razor teeth or claws, but their burrows can pose a significant tripping hazard. Watch where you step, and give groundhogs and other wildlife respectful distance. You are in their habitat. Some groundhogs may carry parasites and diseases, like roundworm. They are also dinner for predators, like coyotes and birds of prey.
6. Does your life feel like Groundhog Day?: If you watched “Groundhog Day” and felt a deep and painful sort of sympathy to Bill Murray’s character, you’re not alone. It could be a sign of a more serious issue. Cabin fever, where it is too cold to go outside and enjoy the sun, can set in along with SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. Feeling like you’re living the same day over and over again is a sign of depression. If you’re feeling down or hopeless a lot of the time, talk to your loved ones, or a mental health professional.
7. Plan ahead: Trusting a groundhog is a fun past time. You can prepare for your trip by designating an emergency contact, updating your personal health record, getting travel medical insurance, having emergency money and staying in touch with the news at your destination.
Go safe and go smart with Depart Smart. Find more travel tips and resources at Depart Smart.org.