PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. (KTAL/KMSS) – Feb. 2 is Groundhog Day, but this yearly tradition is about much more than predicting the timeliness of spring.

Celebrating Punxsutawney Phil emerging from the ground is also about Americans seeing or not seeing the shadow of the oldest known indigenous tribe in the United States and fusing ancient legends, including the Delaware Nation’s great-groundhog Wojak, with Christian and Celtic traditions of Candlemas that trace back to at least the fourth century.

Native American ties to Groundhog Day

Thought to be North America’s oldest indigenous tribe, the Delaware Nation is said to be the originator of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania’s original name. Ponkis Utenink, which means land-of-the-ponkis, was settled by members of the Delaware Tribe known as the Lenni-Lanape.

Ponkis are sand flies, and sand flies were said to have plagued the first European settlers in the land-of-the-ponkis circa 1772, until they lost the desire to establish a settlement between the Allegheny and Susquehanna Rivers.

In 1818, settlers tried again. The swamps were drained, the insects exterminated, and by 1840 Punxsutawney had officially turned itself into a European-styled village. Ten years later, the population had swelled to just above 250 people.

But the village was about to become famous because of a little critter that couldn’t even chuck wood, despite one of its many names.

And the groundhog does have many names. It also goes by woodchuck, whistle-pig, wood-shock, whistler, marmot, thickwood badger, red monk, land beaver, weenusk, monax, groundpig, and some folks even call it a siffleaux. Scientists, however, call it a Marmota monax.

And it’s a rodent, in case you’re curious.

Old World ties to Groundhog Day

Calendars and candles united old-world cultures through Candlemas, a Christian holiday that began in the fourth century and celebrated the return of light after the darkness of winter. Candlemas occurred on Feb. 2 and helped neatly divide the Roman calendar into eighths. Candles were blessed on the day, which also has many other symbolic meanings to the Christian faith. The day may also be an adaptation of Februalia, a holiday celebrated prior to the Christianization of the Roman empire.  

The German tradition of Badger Day (Dachstag) is based on the belief that badgers see their shadows while coming out of hibernation on Feb. 2 will predict that winter will last longer.

And then there’s Imbolc, a Celtic word that symbolizes the day halfway between the winter solstice (Yule) and spring equinox (Ostara.) Imbolc means in the belly of the mother, in case you were curious.  

Generations later, in the United States, kids taught one another the tongue twister “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” Little did/do most kids today know that a woodchuck is a groundhog, or that in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on Feb. 2, 1887, a groundhog came out of its hole at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney and began a tradition that has been going strong for the past 136 years even though the reasons why have mostly been forgotten.

But it is no accident that Candlemas, Groundhog Day, Badger Day, and Imbolc fall on the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. This particular time is considered to be a cross-quarter day, the day halfway between winter and spring.

Great-groundhog Wojak is said to have been both a groundhog and the ancestral great-grandfather of the Delaware Nation who came from within the earth, hence the name woodchuck may very well be a corruption of great-groundhog Wojak’s name. But the groundhog was important to many of the native nations that lived on these lands for countless centuries before the arrival of peoples from the Old-World. In fact, the Deleware Nation’s neighbors from long ago, the Cherokee Nation, have a legend of their own that seems to explain why the groundhog’s tail is so very short, as told by James Mooney in Cherokee Origin of the Groundhog Dance.

Groundhog was once caught by a pack of seven hungry wolves. But he was wise, and Groundhog tricked the wolves into letting him sing a song so they could learn a new dance.

“…I’ll sing for you,” groundhog said. “This is a new dance entirely. I’ll lean up against seven trees in turn and you will dance out and then turn and come back, as I give the signal, and at the last turn you may kill me.”

The wolves agreed, and groundhog leaned against a tree. Ha′wiye′ĕhĭ′, he sang and all the wolves danced until he said Yu! and began with Hi′yagu′wĕ. They danced back in line, and groundhog went to the next tree.

Ha′wiye′ĕhĭ′, he sang, and all the wolves danced their best until he said Yu! and began with Hi′yagu′wĕ. Groundhog encouraged them, but each time he moved to a different tree, he was a little bit closer to his hole under a tree stump. When he reached the seventh tree, the groundhog told the wolves, when I say, Yu! You all turn and come after me, and the one who gets me may eat me.

And so he sang the song and then said, Yu! And jumped for his hole.

But one of the wolves caught him by the tail just as he was diving into his hole, and the wolf bit groundhog’s tail so hard that his tail broke off. And that, my friends, is why the groundhog’s tail is short today.

And so on this Groundhog Day, and on the ones that follow, think of the legends that predate our lifetimes. Remember the tales of great-groundhog Wojak, and of wolves that danced around seven trees, and of tribes who lived on these lands long before we were born.

But most of all, remember the changing of the seasons. For a whistling, red-monk’d woodchuck does not need to see or not see his shadow or even use words at all to tell us something important, and that something important is calendrical. The lesson is of moon and sun cycles, equinoxes, solstices, and cross-quarter days, and there’s nothing magical or spooky about it—such is simply math. This is but one of the ways farmers once knew how and when to grow crops, how ancient astronomers predicted planetary alignments, how sailors navigated, and how latitudes and longitudes were measured.

No, it isn’t absolutely necessary to believe the prediction made by a furry little creature in Pennsylvania that may or may not be correct about spring’s arrival.

But once upon a time, celebrating cross-quarter day was very important to humans as they prepared to plant early spring crops. And when you really stop to think about it, those days were not so very long ago.

The first Groundhog Day was celebrated in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in 1887.