The Groundhog Day has its origins in the Gaelic and Celtic pagan celebrations called Imbolc, one of the four major festivals of the Celtic calendar held between the winter solstice of and spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. The premise of the event is based on one of these rodents, who when leaving their burrow, can predict the duration of the rest of winter. According to folklore, if it is cloudy, the groundhog emerges from its burrow and spring will come early. If it is sunny, the Groundhog supposedly will see its shadow and retreat to its burrow, and winter weather will continue.
Modern customs of the holiday involve celebrations early in the morning to watch the marmot out of its burrow. The fame of the celebration comes from old, and as in many other cases, has its origin in festivals that mix the pagan with the Christian and with local folklore.
It is a known fact that our ancestors were well versed in knowledge of climate, enough to define and predict the seasons, locally, of course. They were no satellites or rain gauges, but thanks to their astronomical observations and empiricism, they knew well when the winter, summer or the rainy season would begin. Then as now, climate prediction was an imperfect science and in the short term was very difficult to say if it will rain or not. As the modern world farmers, Pleistocene era hunters and gatherers depended for their survival on the weather predictions.
Since humans were very much given to rituals, especially those that mark a period of the year, at some point in our history, it occurred to someone to celebrate the midpoint of winter. We know that the Celts celebrated Imbolc to mark the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox in early February. Imbolc was a kind of cleansing or regeneration ritual, not unlike the pre-Roman februatio, origin of the name of the month. Imbolc was also a date specified for weather forecasting.
As good observers they were, our ancestors knew very well the habits of the beasts that surrounded them, if only because that way it was easier to hunt them. Among these habits was hibernation, the state of low metabolic activity as some animals use to save energy during the winter, the food shortage season. People from all over the world learned that periods of hibernation served to signal the beginning and end of the cold season. The Celts did it with the snakes, the Inuit with the polar bears, and the Germans with hedgehogs and badgers, wherein a badger or sacred bear is the prognosticator as opposed to a groundhog.
According to legend, on that date, the female climate goddess, called Cailleach was about to run out of wood. If the day was cloudy, it meant that Cailleach was warm on her bed sleeping and without needing to gather more firewood so spring was on the way.
Later, the early Christians living in Europe were accustomed to celebrate Candlemas Day. Usually the Christian religion has tried to replace the pagan celebrations for other Christian, to try to reduce paganism and get the largest number of believers. The same has happened with Easter or Christmas, for example. In fact, Candelaria Day is placed 40 days after Christmas Day, and is supposed to represent the day on which the baby Jesus is presented in the temple to the Jews.
The festival of Imbolc suffered the same fate as many other previous rituals to Christianity. In the same way that Saturnalia became Christmas, Imbolc was transformed by Catholic saints to Candelaria, based partly on the Celtic tradition of making a candlelight procession in honor of Brigida, while maintaining the meteorological aspect Of the festival. At the celebration of Candelaria Day, the clergy blessed candles and distributed it among people during the darkest days of winter. Those candles were lit and placed in the windows of the houses, one by each window.
The belief was that if the sun came out at the beginning of February, it meant that the winter weather would last for a few more weeks. When the Germans came to the lands of the Indians in Delaware in the eighteenth century, they brought the tradition of Candlemas Day. Groundhogs were considered by the Delaware Indians as honorable ancestors. According to the original Delaware beliefs about the creation of the universe, their ancestors began living as animals on earth and emerged centuries later to hunt and live transformed as human beings.
In southeastern Pennsylvania, Groundhog Lodges celebrate the holidays with fersommling, social events where food is served, speeches given, and one or more plays or skits for entertainment are represented. In Europe the feast of February, known as the lord of the climate was celebrated with a bear or a badger. Probably the European tradition of the lord of the climate merged with the beliefs of the Delaware Indians about marmots and the tradition emerged as we know it today. The tradition of following the groundhog that for all is called Punxsutawney Phil was made famous worldwide by the movie 'Groundhog Day