Groundhog Day 2024: What is it and who is Punxsutawney Phil? Slice of folklore explained

Groundhog Day is a piece of American tradition starring a rodent and his dedicated guardians

Punxsutawney Phil, the weather forecasting groundhog, gives a TV interview on Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. AP
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You will have likely heard of Groundhog Day, largely thanks to the Bill Murray movie of the same name. But what is it? The answer lies in the US Midwest as anticipation builds for the 2024 event to unfold.

As it begins to emerge from the winter cold, every year, eyes turn to a small town in Pennsylvania on February 2 to see if a groundhog, known as Punxsutawney Phil, will see his shadow.

What is Groundhog Day?

According to the legend, if the creature, named after the Pennsylvania town, sees its shadow, that means six more weeks of winter.

It’s a piece of American folklore that has taken on a life of its own.

Each year, Punxsutawney hosts a mass Groundhog Day gathering, including many who fly in from outside the US, for the ultimate weather report. Much of the appeal stems from Murray's popular 1993 movie.

There's much that could be written about how the quirky meet-up evolved from its early beginnings in Germany before making its way to Punxsutawney in 1886, but I'll leave that to the Groundhog Day organisers.

Instead, I will skip right to the heart of the matter: the generations of groundhogs named Punxsutawney Phil.

Has Punxsutawney Phil ever got a prediction wrong?

Full disclosure: I’ve never actually attended a Groundhog Day event despite, at one point, living approximately an hour away from Punxsutawney. That being said, I did cover a few small stories surrounding the tradition.

One of these was in 2013. As a general assignment reporter covering central Pennsylvania at the time, I was tasked with meeting the rodent himself.

It was a year when poor Phil got it wrong. A prediction of a brisk winter was upended by a seemingly endless freeze.

As a result, a lawyer tried to have the groundhog extradited from Pennsylvania to an Ohio courtroom on charges of misleading the public.

It was a brilliant PR stunt. As part of the story, I interviewed the group tasked with keeping an eye on Phil, who resides in a comfortable enclosure known as Phil’s Burrow. It is located within the Punxsutawney Library, near the children’s books section.

PUNXSUTAWNEY, PA - FEBRUARY 02: Punxsutawney Phil is held up by his handler for the crowd to see during the ceremonies for Groundhog day on February 2, 2018 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Phil predicted six more weeks of winter after seeing his shadow. Groundhog Day is a popular tradition in the United States and Canada where people await the sunrise and the groundhog's exit from his winter den. If Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow he regards it as an omen of six more weeks of bad weather and returns to his den. Early spring arrives if he does not see his shadow, causing Phil to remain above ground. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Punxsutawney Phil is held up by his handler for the crowd to see during the ceremonies for Groundhog Day on February 2, 2018 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Getty Images

These dedicated guardians are known as the “inner circle”, and they lovingly refer to Phil as the “prognosticator of prognosticators".

While the story itself was unremarkable, I do remember being surprised by a few things.

Groundhog Day. Courtesy Cody Combs
Social Media Journalist Cody Combs interviews the 'inner circle' with Punxsutawney in 2013.

I recall Phil being transported in an open and relatively spacious circular plastic cage, before being taken out by one of his handlers for the interview.

I also remember that if the library isn’t open, you can actually see Phil’s Burrow from the outside — of course, I snapped myself in front of his digs.

Groundhog Day. Courtesy Cody Combs
In front of Phil's Burrow at Punxsutawney Library.

Sitting here thousands of miles away in an Abu Dhabi newsroom, I am glad that Groundhog Day remains a big part of Punxsutawney tradition.

It is a story of the “little guy” fighting the elements and it sheds light on a quirky piece of American history.