The desire to forecast the weather dates back thousands of years. Long before there were meteorologists with state-of-the-art technology for tracking atmospheric patterns, humans have relied on many things — including furry little critters — to help them determine changes in the weather and seasons.
Thursday, Feb. 2, is Groundhog Day, and according to lore, the groundhog will emerge from his hole after a long winter’s nap. If it’s a sunny day, he’ll become frightened when he sees his shadow and skedaddle back into his burrow for six more weeks of winter. However, if it’s cloudy and he doesn’t see his shadow, it means spring is just around the corner.
Here are five things you may not know about Groundhog Day:
1. The holiday has its roots in the ancient Gaelic festival of Imbolc, held halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It was the day when a female weather deity called the Cailleach, which means hag, was close to running out of firewood. If she wanted a nice, long winter, she’d make it a bright, sunny day that was good for going outside and gathering lots of firewood. But if it were cloudy, it meant the Cailleach was snug in her bed and sleeping and didn’t need to gather any more firewood because spring was on its way. Over time, Imbolc became Christianized and became St. Brigid’s Day, which was followed by Candlemas on Feb. 2.
2. The first reference to Groundhog Day in America was in 1841 in a diary entry by James Morris, a storekeeper in Morgantown, Pennsylvania. He quoted old poems — from England, Scotland and Germany — that equate a sunny Candlemas with a long winter.
3. The modern Groundhog Day tradition, however, really got started in 1887. Clymer H. Freas, a savvy businessman and the editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper in Pennsylvania, promoted the town’s very own groundhog as the official Groundhog Day meteorologist, thus turning Groundhog Day into a newsworthy event.
4. Groundhogs hibernate over the winter, and the males actually do come out of their burrows in February, interested in lining up future mating partners. They check out the burrows of the lady groundhogs, then go back into their burrows and hibernate until around early March, when it’s time to mate.
5. Groundhogs aren’t the only creatures thought to predict winter. Back in the late 1940s, Charles Howard Curran, an entomologist and the curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, began studying woolly bear caterpillars, which are tiger moth in its larvae stage, in early autumn. The woolly bear’s front and end are black, and the midsection is brown. Curran believed the wider the brown band, the milder the winter would be. Present-day entomologists say there’s no science to back up Curran’s claim.