Punxsutawney Phil 2012 Prediction: The History behind Groundhog Day

 @MarkJohansonIBT
on February 02 2012 9:17 AM
Groundhog Day
WTAJ meteorologist Joe Murgo tries to interview famed weather prognosticating groundhog Punxsutawney Phil after Phil made his annual weather prediction on Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on the 126th Groundhog Day, February 2, 2012. REUTERS

Each year on Groundhog Day, Americans go bananas over the prediction of a rodent meteorologist named Punxsutawney Phil. Cameras lit, he takes to the stage to act out one of the nation's most unusual rituals in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

So what did the prognosticating groundhog say in 2012? Well, he didn't really say anything, but his shadow foretold six more weeks of winter.

Thursday's ceremony was largely just that.

Each year, thousands of people make the trek to Gobbler's Knob to hear the 20-inch, 15-pound Punxsutawney Phil's prediction. As the legend goes, if he sees his shadow when he emerges from his burrow, there will be six more weeks of winter weather. No shadow foretells an early spring.

The whole event is run by a group of top hatted, bowtie-wearing men known as the Groundhog Club's Inner Circle. Essentially, they're a group of local dignitaries responsible for carrying on the tradition of Groundhog Day every year. Not only are they in charge of planning each year's events, but they also feed and care for Phil himself.

What you may not know is that it's these stodgy old men who actually decide in advance what the groundhog will predict. Phil has now seen his shadow 100 times and hasn't seen it just 16 times since 1886, according to the Inner Circle.

But that didn't stop nearly 18,000 people from visiting Punxsutawney Phil's hometown.

Where is Punxsutawney? It's hard enough to spell, let alone find on the map. This Western Pennsylvania enclave is one of the most famous small towns in America thanks to its fury mascot, but even the town's official Web page notes that getting to Punxsutawney can be tricky:

 When using an address for Punxsutawney in your GPS or on MapQuest, please use 102 West Mahoning St., Punxsutawney, PA 15767. Other addresses for Punxsutawney may incorrectly take you to a small town outside of Punxsutawney.

Nestled in the gently rolling hills of the Appalachian Plateau, Punxsutawney is approximately 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh and 100 miles south of Erie. It's home to roughly 6,200 residents and one groundhog family: Phil, his wife, and a couple children.

Punxsutawney is located on the earliest known trail to the east, the Shamokin path, and was originally a Native American campsite halfway between the Allegheny and Susquehanna rivers. The area was occupied by Shawnee, Delaware, Seneca, and Iroquois at various times throughout history.

The name Punxsutawney itself is derived from a Native American word for sand flies, a gnat-like inset that was prevalent in the area.

The first white settlers arrived in the late 18th century and since 1887, members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club have held public celebrations of Groundhog Day.

What started as a small gathering in 1887 has now evolved into tens of thousands of visitors from around the nation and even the world coming to Punxsutawney to participate in this time-honored Groundhog Day tradition, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said Thursday.

The date Feb. 2 actually has roots in science as Groundhog Day is somewhat of an astronomical holiday. It's an event that takes place in Earth's orbit around the Sun as we move between the solstices and equinoxes. In other words, it's more or less midway between the December solstice and the March equinox.

The tradition of celebrating such an event can be traced back to early Christians in Europe, when a hedgehog was said to look for his shadow on Candlemas Day.

According to an old English rhyme: If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight. But if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.

The Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney boasts other less furry attractions like the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center, the Theater Arts Guild, the Punxsutawney Country Club, Cloe Lake and the Mahoning Shadow Trail. And, of course, the famous 1993 Bill Murray film plays on free screens everywhere. However, Punxsutawney Phil is truly the main event.

Crowds gathered at Gobbler's Knob at 3:00 a.m. around a bonfire Thursday and waited for the 7:25 a.m. prediction with bated breath.

Will the winter continue or will spring come early? It's hard to say. While the Inner Circle keeps track of Phil's predictions, they don't have a record of whether or not they come true.

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