Groundhog Day: A Unit Study

Every child knows the basics of Groundhog Day. On February 2, the groundhog peeks out of his hole to decide if he wants to take the trouble of staying awake or if he would rather sleep in a while longer:

  • If the sun is out, he casts a shadow that is apparently frightening enough that he promptly decides to return to the safety of his bed.
  • If the weather is cloudy, no shadow meets his eye and he comes out of his hole, marking the beginning of spring.

But did you ever wonder where in the world we came up with this strange custom?

The History of Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day: A Unit Study

Groundhog Day traces its origin to ancient times. The story goes that Candlemas Day — originally a Roman Catholic celebration of Mary’s ceremonial purification after Jesus’ birth — somehow picked up the reputation of being an indicator of upcoming weather conditions.

An old folk saying proclaims:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight.
If Candlemas be cloud and rain,
Winter will be gone and not come again.

The Romans supposedly carried the Candlemas tradition to Germany, where it was absorbed into the pagan festival of Imbolc, a celebration of the changing of the seasons. The pagans logically concluded that if the sun was out on February 2, an animal would cast a shadow. The hedgehog was evidently held in high regard in their culture, and thus was chosen to forecast the weather. The tradition was handed down throughout the generations, and when the descendants of the ancient Germans set foot in Pennsylvania in early American history, the legend arrived with them.

Groundhog Day: A Unit Study

Hedgehogs are scarce in Pennsylvania, but the settlers did encounter an abundance of groundhogs, also known as woodchucks. These marmots, or large ground squirrels, seemed intelligent enough, and they bore some slight resemblance to hedgehogs, so the settlers conferred the honor of predicting the arrival of spring on the groundhog.

Punxsutawney Phil

At first Groundhog Day wasn’t much of a celebration, mostly consisting of a few curious country folk taking a walk in the woods to see if the marmots had come out of hibernation. But on February 2, 1887, the first official procession was made to Gobbler’s Knob — the home of Punxsutawney Phil.

Punxsutawney Phil is the only true groundhog forecaster, proponents say. Buckeye Chuck, Smith Lake Jake, Jimmy the Groundhog, and all the others are merely imposters. Regardless of what skeptics say to the contrary, Phil is reputed to have been around for over a hundred years. His advocates claim that just one sip of the mysterious Elixir of Life every summer provides him with seven more years of existence, so he will never fail to emerge from his burrow and whisper his prediction in Groundhogese to his tuxedo-clad handlers. And with so much forecasting experience, one would fully expect him to achieve the 75% – 90% accuracy rates attributed to him, although the National Climatic Data Center still persists in floating a troublesome estimate of 39%.

About Those Groundhogs

But do not be fooled by Phil’s cute and cuddly image. Groundhogs in the wild live a far different life. They eat crops, they dig up gardens, they undermine buildings, and, while not exactly aggressive, they have earned a reputation for possessing extremely powerful jaws. They only live two or three years on average and eight years maximum compared to Punxsutawney Phil’s hundred-plus, and they have to forage for their own fruits and vegetables, instead of being treated to picnics by devoted members of the “Inner Circle.” Then, too, they rarely range far from their massive burrows for fear of encountering a bear, fox, or snake. That’s a far cry from a cozy home in the Punxsutawney library!

Groundhogs are widely distributed throughout eastern and central North America, ranging as far south as Alabama and as far north as Alaska, although their scarcity in that state has recently prompted the creation of a more generalized “Marmot Day” — yet another modification in the long-held tradition of Groundhog Day.

Further Investigation

Groundhog Day
Short, informative video from the Missouri Department of Conservation on the groundhog. (You may want to install an ad blocker before viewing.)

Groundhog Day Facts
From Cornell.

Groundhog Day
Background information and prediction results from NOAA.

Candlemas Day
Background information on the holiday.

Groundhog Day | All About the Holidays
Fun video at PBS.


Groundhog Day Pipe Puzzle
Online interactive puzzle from Highlights.

Groundhog Day
View this painting by Andrew Newell Wyeth. Why do you think the artist gave the painting the title he did?

Groundhog Day Interactive & Pattern Filled Coloring Sheets
Very original pop-art-themed coloring pages with and without shadow from Art with Jenny K.

Groundhog Paper Craft
From DLTK.

Paper Plate Groundhog Craft
Your child can be Phil with this simple craft from DLTK.

Make Your Own Groundhog Weatherman
Great idea from the University of Illinois (beats waking up a groundhog…).

Solar Observation — Primary Grades
Track a shadow.

Solar Observation — Intermediate Grades
Same idea as above for older students.

Groundhog Day Quiz
This is a very simple quiz aimed at ESL students, but can make a nice wrap-up for others. You can also use these questions as narration prompts.

Groundhog Day: A Unit Study

Groundhog Day by Gail Gibbons
Detail of the day from a favorite author.

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
Hibernation Unit Study {Free}

Hibernation Unit Study {Free}
A free unit study covering animals’ hibernation habits.

What Makes Shadows
Lesson plan at

The Earth’s Rotation
Lessons and activities on shadows and how/why they are made.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Groundhog Printout
Facts and printout from Enchanted Learning.

Animal Facts Sheet
Free printable from for recording facts about groundhogs.

Groundhog Day
Coloring page at

Color Me Phil
The original shadow see-er.

Groundhog Day Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.

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