Groundhog Day

February 2010


February 2 falls midway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Traditionally, it was believed that the degree of cloudiness or brightness on the morning of February 2 would predict the severity of weather for the following six weeks. The Scots declared, “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.” The Germans held the belief that the coming weather could be forecast by observing whether the hedgehog ended or continued its winter hibernation. When Germans arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1700s, the hedgehog was replaced by the ubiquitous groundhog.


The first official observance of Groundhog Day occurred on February 2, 1887, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The featured groundhog was originally named Br’er Groundhog. Later, he was renamed Phil after King Philip. The town name Punxsutawney comes from the language of the Delaware Native Americans and means “place of the sand flies.” Sand flies were also known as “punkies.”


Prior to 1966, the witnessing of the Phil’s scamperings on Groundhog Day was done in secrecy. A small group would trek to a wooded area outside Punxsutawney called Gobbler’s Knob. Only Phil’s prognostications were made public. Beginning in 1966, the event itself was opened to the public. Since the 1993 release of the movie Groundhog Day and Phil’s appearance on Oprah in 1995, attendance at Gobbler’s Knob has swelled upwards to 30,000 onlookers.


Wisconsin’s own celebration of Groundhog Day was conceived in 1948 when Ira Bennett of Eau Claire designed a series of commemorative post cards relating holidays to various Wisconsin locations. Sun Prairie was matched with Groundhog Day based on a play on words ¾ the groundhog sees his shadow when the sun shines on the prairie. In 1950, a nearby farmer turned up a groundhog with his plow. The groundhog was adopted for the upcoming Groundhog Day ceremony. Unfortunately, the new star died two days before his official outing in 1951. On February 2, 1952, two groundhogs were “married” and their albino offspring was named Prince Dauphine. The Prince became Sun Prairie’s official groundhog in 1953. Shortly after the celebrated wedding, Sun Prairie proclaimed itself “World Headquarters of the Groundhog,” sparking a feud between Wisconsin and Pennsylvania Congressmen. The heated exchange is recorded in the Congressional Record. There have been eight official Sun Prairie groundhogs. The incumbent is Jimmy VIII who has held the office since 2001.


Not every city holding a Groundhog Day celebration has an incumbent groundhog. Vancouver, British Columbia, has Furby the Wonder Chicken. Duluth, Minnesota, has Spike the Porcupine. Oxford, Michigan, has a llama named Windstar’s Mr. Prozac (nicknamed Zac). Zac’s interesting moniker came about when his beloved predecessor Noah the Groundhog died. Zac’s accession served as an anti-depressant for Oxford’s loss.