It’s that time of year again, when our fate lies in the paws of a sleepy rodent from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Will we need lighter jackets and less layers soon, or are parkas and snow boots here to stay for six more weeks? Only Punxsutawney Phil can say for sure, and we'll have to wait for Groundhog Day on February 2 to find out his prediction.
Groundhog Day is an age-old tradition with roots in the Christian festival of Candlemas. It was celebrated at Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney for the first time in 1887, when a newspaper editor named Clymer Freas anointed Phil as the country's only official weather-prognosticating groundhog. Since then, it has become a minor but popular holiday in the U.S. and Canada, where superstitious residents wait with faux bated breath to learn whether Phil (or Wiarton Willie, if you live north of the border) has seen his shadow.
Meteorologists will probably tell you not to put much stock in Phil's predictions — we'll get to his accuracy rate in a bit — but that doesn't mean you can't have a little fun with the tradition. Here's a by-the-numbers look at the history and fanfare around Groundhog Day.
1: Official Number of Punxsutawney Phils in Groundhog Day History
The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club claims that there is one, and only one Phil, and that his longevity can be explained by the special elixir they give him every year at their summer picnic. (Legend has it that the elixir adds seven years to Phil's life every time he drinks it.)
If you’re skeptical of magic potions, however, you can make an educated guess as to how many Phils the town has had, based on the number of years they’ve been holding the event (134, as of 2021) and the average lifespan of a groundhog (10 years). That amounts to roughly 13 or 14 Punxsutawney groundhogs since the first Groundhog Day.
4: Other Official State Groundhogs
Although Punxsutawney's annual ceremony is generally considered the main event in the United States, it's far from the only such celebration. Other cities and states have started their own Groundhog Day traditions with shadow-seeking seers including official state groundhogs such as Buckeye Chuck, the official state groundhog of Ohio; Chuckles, the official state groundhog of Connecticut; Woody the Woodchuck, the official predictor for Michigan; and Ms. G, the official state groundhog of Massachusetts. There are also many unofficial copycats... er, rodents, out there. To name a few:
- Balzac Billy of Balzac, Alberta
- Fred la Marmotte of Percé, Quebec
- General Beauregard Lee of Jackson, Georgia
- Shubenacadie Sam of Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia
- Staten Island Chuck of Staten Island, New York
- Thistle the Whistlepig of Cleveland, Ohio
- Dunkirk Dave of Dunkirk, New York
- Unadilla Bill, a taxidermied groundhog from Unadilla, Nebraska
- Wiarton Willie, an albino groundhog from Wiarton, Ontario
- Pierre C. Shadeaux, a nutria from New Iberia, Louisiana
- Sir Walter Wally of Raleigh, North Carolina
- Polk County Paula, a costumed groundhog enthusiast from Des Moines, Iowa
10: Years Bill Murray Was Stuck in a Time Loop in Groundhog Day
Harold Ramis, who directed the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, once said that Bill Murray’s Phil Connors was trapped in his Punxsutawney time loop for 10 years. That may seem like a long time, but the original script actually called for the timeline to span 10,000 years.
Given how much Phil learns and accomplishes in the movie, however, fans have long questioned whether 10 years is accurate. So one website decided to do the math: They took into account various references throughout the movie — such as all of the times Phil died and how long it would take to become a professional ice sculptor or pianist — and came to the conclusion that the time loop lasted eight years, eight months, and 16 days. Ramis actually responded to this calculation and decided that both his original estimate and the website were incorrect. He wrote in an email: "I think the 10-year estimate is too short. It takes at least 10 years to get good at anything, and alloting for the down time and misguided years he spent, it had to be more like 30 or 40 years…."
13: Current Members of Phil's Inner Circle
If you've ever watched the festivities in Punxsutawney, you may have noticed a group of men in suits and top hats. These men are Phil's "Inner Circle" — a group of "local dignitaries" from the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club who are responsible for planning the annual ceremony and caring for Phil. In addition to the President, whom Phil “tells” his prediction to every year, members include the Co-Handler, the Big Chill, the Thunder Conductor, the Chief Healthman, the Iceman, and the Daybreaker.
39%: Phil's Accuracy Rate
The Stormfax Almanac has been tracking Phil’s predictions since 1887, and has found him to be exceedingly poor at predicting the seasons. According to their data, Phil's accuracy rate hovers at around 39%. This calculation was backed up by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which kept an eye on Phil from 2008 to 2018 and found that he was right 40% of the time. Don't question Phil's track record in his hometown, though: The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle continues to insist that Phil has never been wrong.
Here's a closer look at Phil’s predictions by the numbers:
20: times Phil has predicted an early spring
104: times Phil has predicted six more weeks of winter
1: "unfortunate meeting with a skunk" (1937)
1: time Phil wore his Terrible Towel to commemorate the Steelers’ 2006 Super Bowl appearance (and eventual win)
2: times the official record shows that Phil went to the moon (once in 1958 in his “Chucknik” spacecraft, and again in 1962)
10: times there was no record, including a streak from 1891 to 1897
135: Years We've Been Celebrating Groundhog Day
As noted previously, the idea for Groundhog Day can be traced back to an ancient Christian holiday called Candlemas, the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. On this day, clergy blessed candles that would be needed to survive the rest of the winter. Tradition held that if the day was sunny and clear, there was more rough winter ahead. But if the sky was cloudy, spring was just around the corner.
At some point, Germans put their own spin on this tradition by replacing the cloudy and sunny weather with a hedgehog seeing its shadow. When Germans came to the U.S., they brought the tradition with them, eventually switching the hedgehog to a groundhog — and because many of them settled in Pennsylvania, the strange holiday became associated with the area. The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper announced the first Groundhog Day in 1886, followed by the first ceremony in 1887, and we’ve been doing it ever since.
40,000: People in Attendance at the 2020 Celebration
Last year, the people of Punxsutawney opened their arms to a record 40,000 visitors — seven times the town’s population of 5,700. The previous attendance record was 35,000, set in 1997. This year's celebration will be virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions, but even a pandemic can’t keep Phil down: He’s still scheduled to make his appearance on February 2.