Post credits to Ker Than for National Geographic News (Updated February 2, 2011)
"The sky is clear. Prepare for warmth!" With those rousing words Wednesday morning, the world's most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, offered a ray of hope to millions of Americans being buffeted by a monster winter storm. (See Groundhog Day pictures.)
By seeing no shadow as he emerged from his ceremonial burrow in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Groundhog Day 2011, Phil, according to tradition, is said to have predicted an early spring.
"Groundhog Day is a lot like a rock concert, but the people are better behaved and there's a groundhog involved," Tom Chapin, editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper, told National Geographic News last Groundhog Day eve.
"There's music and entertainment, spoofs of game shows, and people shooting t-shirts and Beanie Babies" into the crowd, he said.
Legend has it that if Punxsutawney Phil emerges from his temporary burrow—a simulated tree stump at the rural site of Gobbler's Knob—on February 2 and sees his shadow, winter weather will continue for six more weeks across the United States. But if Phil doesn't see his shadow, then spring temperatures are just around the corner.
Regardless of the weather prediction, on Groundhog Day, Phil "speaks" to his human caretakers, known as the Inner Circle, in Groundhogese and tells them his forecast. The Inner Circle then translates Phil's words for the world to hear—or so they say. (Related: "Groundhog Sees More Winter Ahead" .)
On Groundhog Day 2011, "immortal" Punxsutawney Phil—supposedly born no later than the 19th century—got his message out in some decidedly 21st-century ways, by texting his forecast (to sign up, text "groundhog" to 247365) and, of course, updating his Facebook status and the Pennsylvania-tourism Twitter feed.
Video: Wild Groundhog in "Action"
Groundhog Day Origins
According to the official Punxsutawney Phil Groundhog Day Web site, Groundhog Day is the result of a blend of ancient Christian and Roman customs that came together in Germany.
In the early days of Christianity in Europe, clergy would distribute blessed candles to the faithful on February 2 in honor of Candlemas, a holiday celebrating the Virgin Mary's presentation of Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth.
Along the way, February 2 also became associated with weather prediction, perhaps due to its proximity to the pagan Celtic festival of Imbolc—also a time of meteorological superstition—which falls on February 1.
Tradition held that the weather on Candlemas was important: Clear skies meant an extended winter.
Legend has it that the Romans also believed that conditions during the first days of February were good predictors of future weather, but the empire looked to hedgehogs for their forecasts.
These two traditions melded in Germany and were brought over to the United States by German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. Lacking hedgehogs, the German settlers substituted native groundhogs in the ritual, and Groundhog Day was born.