Happy Grundsaudaag! The ancient Germanic history of Groundhog Day (2024)

Let's Talk | Languages

(Image credit:

Getty Images


Happy Grundsaudaag! The ancient Germanic history of Groundhog Day (1)

By Sophie Hardach2nd February 2024

You say Groundhog Day, I say Grundsaudaag: how German and Swiss settlers in Pennsylvania created a new language – and a much-loved American holiday.


Every 2 February since at least 1886, people have been gathering in the Pennsylvanian town of Punxsutawney to watch a groundhog – a furry rodent – crawl out of a hole after its winter sleep. If the day is sunny and the groundhog sees its own shadow, there will be six more weeks of cold weather, according to legend – but if it's a cloudy day, and there is no shadow, spring has arrived. Across the US, the quirky tradition is known as Groundhog Day. But among its original celebrants, it has a different name: Grundsaudaag.

At first glance, Grundsaudaag may look like an ancient German word. Instead, it is actually an example of Pennsylvania Dutch, a Germanic language that emerged in the 18th Century and is now mostly used by the Amish and Mennonite religious communities. Due to the rapid growth of the Amish population, which numbers almost 380,000 people and for whom the language has a special spiritual and cultural significance, this relatively little-known language is in fact thriving and growing.

So what exactly is Pennsylvania Dutch? And how is it linked to Groundhog Day?

"As a linguist and language enthusiast, I love all languages. But there is something special about the language of my heritage, the one spoken to me when I was a child," says Rose Fisher, a PhD candidate in German linguistics and language science at the Pennsylvania State University.

Fisher grew up in the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Her family left the community when she was 11, and now mostly uses English, she says. Even so, she adds, "I love to hear Pennsylvania Dutch being spoken around me and hope that someday I will be around it more, and more comfortable speaking it again. For me, it means I am home." She and her family still use certain Pennsylvania Dutch words when speaking English "because they refer to concepts that do not exist in the English-speaking world. One that comes to mind is 'gluschdich' which means 'I am not hungry but I feel like eating!'"

Happy Grundsaudaag! The ancient Germanic history of Groundhog Day (2)

An Amish buggy in Middlebury, Indiana. Using horse-drawn buggies is part of the Amish concept of plainness, which also includes speaking Pennsylvania Dutch (Credit: Getty Images)

Historically, the "Dutch" part of Pennsylvania Dutch referred to various Germanic languages in Central and Western Europe, including German, says Mark Louden, a professor of Germanic linguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language.

"Pennsylvania Dutch has always been a hybrid language," he says, adding that like the American culture it is part of, it incorporates influences from a variety of sources.

In the 18th Century, over the space of several decades, a group of around 81,000 people moved to America from the conflict-ravaged German region of the Palatinate (Pfalz in German), Louden says. Among them were a few hundred followers of Jakob Ammann, a Swiss religious leader. They had left Switzerland and settled in Alsace and Palatinate, but were now on the move again – to Pennsylvania, a religiously tolerant colony, where they would become known as the Amish.

In the 1780s, Louden says, the first historical descriptions appeared of "a very curious form of German" being spoken in rural south-eastern Pennsylvania. Its speakers were the children of those first Palatine settlers, who had grown up hearing their parents' different Palatine dialects, as well as English words from others in the area. Those American-born children were therefore the first native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, Louden says.

The English influence was crucial, Louden says: "Essentially all Pennsylvania Dutch speakers have been bilingual." Some 15-20% of Pennsylvania Dutch words are English-derived, he adds. Louden gives the example of an American delicacy that was adopted with great enthusiasm by Pennsylvania Dutch speakers: pie. The sweet, fruit-filled, covered pastry was different from German cakes. They referred to it as "Der Pei", while using "Der Kuche" for German-style cakes. Among Pennsylvania Dutch people who were not Amish or Mennonite, the use of the language faded as people moved to the cities, Louden says.

However, it lives on among the Amish, says Fisher, who has studied Amish attitudes and identity in relation to the language. One possible reason this has occurred, according to research by her and others, is that it helps set the community apart from mainstream, secular society.

"Pennsylvania Dutch is still spoken as the main source of communication for many Amish and Old Order Mennonite groups," says Fisher. "There is huge diversity between the different groups, so it is difficult to make sweeping generalisations about all of them." She gives the example of the Swartzentruber Amish, a very conservative community who "speak Pennsylvania Dutch pretty much exclusively and use English only if they need to communicate with outsiders." Other groups may however use English much more frequently and proficiently: "In the group that I come from, the Lancaster Amish, English is even preferred by some. I don't know of anyone, except very young children, who have any difficulty whatsoever communicating in English."

WATCH: Punxsutawney Phil is not the only furry forecaster

Let's Talk

Let's Talkis a month-long series of language coverage across BBC.com, exploring the ancient roots of alphabets, jargon-busting the modern boardroom, and seeking to understand why we speak the way we do. Browse the whole serieshere.

The origins of Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is perhaps one of the Pennsylvania Dutch community's most well-known cultural inventions – although the Amish themselves do not celebrate it, since it is not a religious holiday. As with the language, Groundhog Day emerged from a mix of influences.

"The origins of Groundhog Day are fascinating," says Louden. "It goes back to a pre-Christian tradition of looking forward to spring." People would try to predict the arrival of spring by observing when ground-dwelling animals such as badgers emerge from hibernation. In northern European countries, these older traditions were then overlaid with the Christian holiday of Lichtmess (Candlemas) on 2 February, Louden says, which the Pennsylvania Dutch also celebrated. As a rural community, they also engaged in various other practices that honoured "the wisdom of nature", Louden says, such as Braucherei, a kind of folk medicine.

In their new environment, the settlers adapted this nature-watching, weather-forecasting ritual to a creature that didn't exist back home: the North American groundhog. Since they had no word for it, they called it "Die Grundsau", a translation of the English "Groundhog". Another word is "Grunddachs", meaning "ground-badger". These words are completely different from the European German word for groundhog: "Murmeltier", or more specifically, "Waldmurmeltier" ("forest-marmot").

The groundhog also fitted well with a core Pennsylvania Dutch value, Louden says: "Demut", humility.

"The groundhog is considered an icon of wisdom, not in the sense of book learning, but in the sense of 'schlau', clever, from practical experience," says Louden. It symbolises a way of life that values humility over striving, competition and materialism, he adds. "The groundhog is about as uncool an animal as it gets. It's not like a lion, a bear or an eagle – it's a rodent. So the Pennsylvania Dutch have embraced that, without planning, as a nice expression of humility."

To illustrate this, he gives the example of a Pennsylvania Dutch poem honouring both the groundhog, and practical knowledge. (If you want to know what Pennsylvania Dutch sounds like, you can listen to a recording of Louden reading the poem):

Die Grundsau kummt gewehnlich raus am zwette Daag im Hanning;

Vum Wedder wees sie meh wie mir un hot doch gaar ken Lanning.

Nau wann sie do ken Schadde sehnt, dann watt des Wedder widder schee,

Doch scheint die Sunn, dann wees sie schun, mer griege widder Schnee.

It translates into English as:

The groundhog usually comes out on the second day in February;

It knows more about the weather than we do and yet has no education.

Now if it doesn't see its shadow here, then the weather will get nice again,

But if the Sun shines, then it knows we will get snow again.

LISTEN: Mark Louden reads Die Grundsau

Fisher says that while the Amish generally do not celebrate Groundhog Day, in her own family, there was ancestral knowledge of it: "My dad has said that my grandma (his mother) put a lot of stock into it and always knew whether the groundhog had seen his shadow or not."

Perhaps helped by its friendly symbolism, the holiday has spread through wider US culture – even though the groundhog's predictions are a bit hit and miss.

You might also like:

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Dutch language itself may be more vulnerable than the population growth numbers suggest. Speaking about her own community, the Lancaster Amish, Fisher says: "They do generally view the language as an important part of their religious and ethnic identity. Some also value bilingualism as such. There are some, typically younger people, though, who do not value the language overly much." Within the community, the importance of maintaining the language is a topic of discussion, she says, and some try to convince others to speak it more to prevent it from being lost.

In any case, Pennsylvania Dutch – or Deitsch as its speakers call it – has already left a wider mark, not just in terms of holidays, but also in the way English is spoken, says Fisher.

"I grew up saying things like 'What for dog is that?' meaning 'Whose dog is that?' or 'Where did that dog come from?'. This is a word-for-word translation of the phrase we would use in Pennsylvania Dutch," Fisher writes. "These Dutchisms are very common in the English used by people from Lancaster [the Amish community] whether or not they speak Pennsylvania Dutch. It has had a huge impact on the local dialect of English."


If you liked this story,sign up for The Essential List newsletter– a handpicked selection of features, videos and can't-miss news delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Join one million Future fans by liking us onFacebook, or follow us onTwitterorInstagram.

Happy Grundsaudaag! The ancient Germanic history of Groundhog Day (2024)


Happy Grundsaudaag! The ancient Germanic history of Groundhog Day? ›

If the day is sunny and the groundhog sees its own shadow, there will be six more weeks of cold weather, according to legend – but if it's a cloudy day, and there is no shadow, spring has arrived. Across the US, the quirky tradition is known as Groundhog Day.

What is the German history of Groundhog Day? ›

Origins. The Pennsylvania Dutch were immigrants from German-speaking areas of Europe. The Germans had a tradition of marking Candlemas (February 2) as "Badger Day" (Dachstag), on which if a badger emerging from its den encountered a sunny day, thereby casting a shadow, it heralded four more weeks of winter.

What's the history behind Groundhog Day? ›

The first mention Yoder has found of groundhogs predicting the weather on February 2 is in a diary entry for that day in 1840, written by a Welsh-American storekeeper in Pennsylvania: Today the Germans say the groundhog comes out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he returns in and remains there 40 days.

Did Willie see his shadow 2024? ›

Which means early spring!” This was the third year in a row, little Willie did not see his shadow, leading to the prediction of an early spring. You can be judge as to how accurate that forecast has been. 1:40 Groundhog Day 2024: Punxsutawney Phil predicts an early spring!

How many Punxsutawney groundhogs have there been? ›

How many "Phils" have there been over the years? There has only been one Punxsutawney Phil. He has been making predictions since 1886! Punxsutawney Phil gets his longevity from drinking the "elixir of life," a secret recipe.

Is Groundhog Day a German tradition? ›

The holiday, which began as a Pennsylvania German custom in southeastern and central Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, has its origins in ancient European weather lore, wherein a badger or sacred bear is the prognosticator as opposed to a groundhog.

What is the German tradition of the groundhog? ›

If the day is sunny and the groundhog sees its own shadow, there will be six more weeks of cold weather, according to legend – but if it's a cloudy day, and there is no shadow, spring has arrived.

Who invented Groundhog Day and why? ›

However, the tradition of using rodents to predict the weather dates back much earlier and was brought to the U.S. by German immigrants. The Groundhog Day celebration was created by a newspaper editor in Punxsutawney named Clymer Freas, who was part of a groundhog hunting club called the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

Does Punxsutawney Phil have a wife? ›

The Pennsylvania group that handles Phil, and his groundhog wife, Phyllis, says the couple have become parents. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club said in a Facebook post Wednesday that Phyllis recently gave birth to two healthy babies. It did not specify their sex or give names for either one.

How long does a groundhog live? ›

Geography: Groundhogs are found from the eastern and central United States northward across Canada and into Alaska. Lifespan: In the wild, groundhogs can live up to six years with two or three being average. In captivity, groundhogs reportedly live up to 14 years.

What did Balzac Billy say 2024? ›

"Generally when the cold comes back after this time, it's usually not as intensely cold, it also doesn't last as long so there is some hope we are starting to see winter wind down but it's not over." Alberta's Balzac Billy is predicting six more weeks of winter for 2024.

Did Wyatt and Willie see his shadow? ›

Wiarton Willie and American groundhog Punxsutawney Phil did not see their shadows on Groundhog Day. Shubenacadie Sam in Nova Scotia and Quebec's Fred la marmotte also predicted an early spring for 2024. Wait a minute, though. Lucy the Lobster, from Nova Scotia, crawled out of the ocean and immediately saw her shadow.

How old was Willie the groundhog? ›

The original Wiarton Willie lived to the advanced age of 22, and was found dead only two days before Groundhog Day in 1999.

Who is Punxsutawney Phil's rival? ›

Most people know the famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, especially after his star turn in the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day, but not as many people are aware of his rival: Staten Island Chuck.

Where does Punxsutawney Phil live now? ›

The other 364 days he spends in "Phil's Burrow" (previously called the less personable "Groundhog Zoo") a warm terrarium built into the Punxsutawney library. The wall that faces the outside is made of glass, so visitors can pay their respects at any time.

How old was the dead groundhog? ›

Blondin believes Fred died in hibernation late last year. Fred was 9-years-old, organizers said, living far longer than the average life expectancy of three years, according to Terminix.

How did German traditions influence Groundhog Day? ›

Badger activity was carefully watched on Candlemas Day to foretell when spring would arrive. German immigrants brought this custom to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was modified to use the more common groundhog as a weather forecast.

Did Groundhog Day come from German immigrants? ›

If it doesn't see its shadow, there will be an early spring. The first Groundhog Day celebration was held on Feb. 2, 1877, at Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. However, the tradition of using rodents to predict the weather dates back much earlier and was brought to the U.S. by German immigrants.

What are the only two countries who celebrate Groundhog Day? ›

What two countries celebrate Groundhog Day? Answer: The United States and Canada. Groundhogs are found only in these two countries, ranging as far south as Alabama, and as far north as Alaska. The U.S. first celebrated Groundhog Day in 1887.

Are there groundhogs in Germany? ›

They lie prey to the red fox, Eurasian badger, wildcat, domestic cats and domestic dogs. They are found as far west as the Netherlands, as far south as southernmost Germany, as far east as to Ukraine and as far north as to Denmark.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Duncan Muller

Last Updated:

Views: 5983

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (59 voted)

Reviews: 90% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Duncan Muller

Birthday: 1997-01-13

Address: Apt. 505 914 Phillip Crossroad, O'Konborough, NV 62411

Phone: +8555305800947

Job: Construction Agent

Hobby: Shopping, Table tennis, Snowboarding, Rafting, Motor sports, Homebrewing, Taxidermy

Introduction: My name is Duncan Muller, I am a enchanting, good, gentle, modern, tasty, nice, elegant person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.