Today is Groundhog Day, the day when Americans gather in anticipation around a large rodent, waiting to learn what his shadow (or lack thereof) means for the arrival of spring. But just when and why did we start using the groundhog as our oracle of meteorology? Read on to discover the roots of this fine tradition.

4 fascinating facts about Groundhog Day (and groundhogs)

1. It dates back to antiquity

February 2 was meaningful for many ancient cultures because it marks the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The Celts held a pagan festival on this date celebrating the start of spring. Under the early Christians, that festival became Candlemas (honoring the presentation of the Christ child at the temple in Jerusalem), but the association with spring continued. Some European Christians believed that sunshine on Candlemas was a harbinger of more winter weather ahead.

Germans gave the tradition their own spin, defining a “sunny” day as one that would cause an animal to cast a shadow. Perhaps noticing that hedgehogs first emerge from their burrows in early February, they chose the hedgehog as their forecaster. When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, they brought the Candlemas tradition with them ­­— but as there were no hedgehogs in America, they substituted the native groundhog instead. (Male groundhogs also emerge briefly in early February to check out potential mates.)

2. It was first officially held in 1887

The holiday owes its current fame to Clymer Frears, member of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club and editor of the local newspaper. In 1887, Frears organized the first celebration at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and declared the town’s groundhog, Phil, as the only true forecaster. Though celebrations are now held around the country, Phil (who is over 125 years old, according to legend) is still the most famous.

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3. It could also be called “Woodchuck Day”

The groundhog — a large, burrowing rodent in the marmot family of ground squirrels ­— is also known as a woodchuck. Despite the popular tongue twister, woodchucks don’t get their name from their ability to “chuck” wood or do anything else with it. Most likely, their moniker comes from the Algonquian name for them: wuchak.

4. Groundhogs may actually be pretty good forecasters

After a brief foray to call on potential partners in early February, male groundhogs return to hibernation until early March, when they come back out to mate. The groundhogs are adept at choosing just the right window — not too early or late — in order to ensure their young are born at the optimal time for survival.

Get ready for Phil’s Groundhog Day forecast

So, what did the groundhog forecast this year?

Spring is on the way!

You might celebrate by:

Putting together a thorough spring-cleaning strategy.

Giving your car tires a little TLC.

Brushing up on the right trees to plant in your yard.

Deciding where to go on your summer vacation.

Happy Groundhog Day!

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about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.