A rodent predicted an early spring

Last weekend, the world’s most famous rodent predicted an early spring. But don’t put your winter coat away just yet.

Last Saturday was Groundhog Day. This weird tradition actually began hundreds of years ago as Candlemas, which was the halfway point between winter solstice and the spring equinox. In the early days, Candlemas was a celebration of the Virgin Mary purifying herself at the temple after the birth of Jesus, and the church handed out candles to last congregants through the rest of winter.

Somewhere along the line, hedgehogs got into the act. In Germany, farmers believed that when hedgehogs came out of their burrows, if they cast a shadow, it meant there would be more winter weather on the way. If they didn’t, it meant spring weather would arrive sooner than usual.

German immigrants to America, and especially Pennsylvania, carried on this tradition, but they started using groundhogs, since European hedgehogs aren’t found in the new world. Eventually, in 1887, a newspaper editor in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, claimed that one specific groundhog was the nation’s only true weather-forecasting groundhog. And thus began the legend of Punxsutawney Phil.

On Saturday, the revelers in Punxsutawney once again celebrated their three-day festival for Groundhog Day, which culminated with a town official dragging the poor rodent out of the fake tree stump that serves as his home. After a few moments of whispering to the groundhog, the official declared that Phil did not see his shadow, and this meant that spring weather would be arriving soon.

But don’t count on it. Actual meteorologists, who should probably have better things to do, have determined that the groundhog’s predictions have been correct – and by extension incorrect – exactly 50 percent of the years it’s been recorded. That’s the same chance you’d get if you just flipped a coin.

So we may or may not have warmer days earlier this year. Keep your parka handy.

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