6 Things Most People Don't Know About Groundhog Day

Groundhog handler Ben Hughes watches Punxsutawney Phil during the Groundhog Day festivities on February 2, 2011. . Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Groundhog Day comes around every year on Feb. 2 and marks a pivotal day in the transition from winter to spring. According to popular legend, if the groundhog leaves his den and sees his shadow, it's both a sunny day and a sign that we're in for six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't see his shadow, winter will end soon.

The holiday has its roots in old European tales about weather and began as a Pennsylvania Dutch celebration in the 18th and 19th century. Today it's celebrated all across the country, though its largest gathering takes place in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, also the location of the 1993 Bill Murray classic, “Groundhog Day.” After “Groundhog Day” came out, the crowds in Punxsutawney grew to the tens of thousands, who thronged to catch a glimpse of Punxsutawney Phil, the famed groundhog, as he makes his prediction.

Murray's movie did a lot to raise general awareness of this fantastic holiday, but I bet there are a lot of things about Groundhog Day that you probably don’t know. Here are six things most people don't know about Groundhog Day.

1. Germans started asking the groundhog about spring as an excuse to party

The Pennsylvania Dutch are actually from Germany, aka Deutschland. The first celebrants of Groundhog Day were Pennsylvania Dutch who used the holiday as an excuse to get together and party. Feb. 2 is almost exactly halfway through winter, so what better time to gather together with your friends and neighbors to eat some good food, drink some good drink, and look ahead to the coming spring?

Groundhog Day owes a lot to a much older European tradition of Candlemas, but was popularized in the late 1800s by a newspaper editor named Clymer H. Freas who was inspired by the hunter tradition of gathering together and barbecuing groundhogs and drinking beer. That tradition has been well kept by so-called Groundhog Lodges, which have been described as a place "for members to throw away worries, cares, and woes and have a good laugh at themselves."

2. Punxsutawney Phil has a pretty terrible success rate

According to National Climatic Data Center, Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous of all the Groundhog Day groundhogs, isn't very good at his job, having picked correctly only 39 percent of the time. As might be expected, the members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club dispute this number and claim that Phil has been right 100 percent of the time.

3. Groundhogs are great swimmers and tree climbers

You wouldn't necessarily peg groundhogs as good swimmers or tree climbers just by looking at them, but they're actually pretty capable at doing both. Their preferred habitat is on the edge of woods and they're known to climb up trees as a way to observe their surroundings and as a way of escaping from trouble, though if given the option they prefer to scurry into their burrows. They'll also enter and swim in ponds and slow-moving streams if no other option for transit exists.

A groundhog peeks out from its burrow during winter
German immigrants changed its past traditions for predicting the start of spring to incorporate groundhogs. Brian E Kushner/Shutterstock

4. Groundhogs are really deep sleepers

Groundhogs spend the winter hibernating in a specially dug hibernation burrow, their breathing and heartbeats slowed to a snail’s pace, their body temperatures not too far above freezing. They survive the cold season in their below-frostline burrows living off the fat they stored up during the summer and fall. In warmer parts of the world, groundhogs hibernate for as little as three months, but in colder regions their sleep can last six months or more.

5. Punxsutawney Phil has an awesome full title

Punxsutawney Phil, the alpha Groundhog Day groundhog, has a full name that would make Don King proud: Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary. Phil was given that name by Freas, the newspaper editor, in 1886 in a series of announcements in his newspaper, The Punxsutawney Spirit. The first trip to the now-famous Gobbler's Knob happened the year after Phil scored this righteous title.

6. Groundhogs can be real jerks

By nature, groundhogs are aggressive creatures. They can be socialized if raised with lots of human contact in captivity, but still retain their full wild memories. Doug Schwartz, a zookeeper and groundhog trainer at the Staten Island Zoo, had this to say to the New York Times about groundhogs "They’re known for their aggression, so you’re starting from a hard place. Their natural impulse is to kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out. You have to work to produce the sweet and cuddly."