The tradition has its roots in Christian and Roman times when early February became associated with weather prediction, possibly due to it being close to the pagan festival of Imbolc just a day earlier.
For some reason it was believed that hedgehogs were accurate forecasters of weather and when German immigrants to the United States settled in Pennsylvania, the lack of hedgehogs meant that they substituted them with the native groundhog.
‘Groundhog Day’ was born.
The largest celebration is held in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, which became the setting for the 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a TV reporter who covers the event, only to find he is living the same day, over and over again.
Directed by Harold Ramis, part of what makes the film special is that it remains unusually inventive for a mainstream studio comedy.
I uses a clever and accessible premise to make shrewd points about human nature, without resorting to cheap sentimentality.
The protagonist is self-centred and takes his colleagues for granted which means there is a satisfying sense of comedic justice when he finds himself trapped inside the endlessly repeating day of February 2nd, 1992.
It is when this cycle begins that the script, co-written by Ramis and Danny Rubin, really shows its stripes, finding ever more inventive ways to explore the deja vu nightmare of its central character.
The increasing torture for Phil, is hilarity for the audience, as the little details repeat and build on one another: the Sonny and Cher song, the annoying man in the street, the waitress and crucially his encounters with his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell).
There is also the central dramatic irony as only we and Phil know that he is experiencing the same day over and over again and literally living life like there is no tomorrow.
Most comedies have some kind of cheesy self-improvement theme built into them, but the reason Groundhog Day is different lies in the power of the central idea: the more we experience the same routine, the greater our insight into others and ultimately ourselves.
There is also something film-like in the way Murray’s character is essentially doing endless ‘re-takes’ of the same day.
It was well received by audiences and critics when it was initially released in February 1993, going on to become the 13th highest grossing film of that year.
But it gradually became a firm favourite on home video: an appropriate fate for a film about repetition, which gets better through repeated viewings.
Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the film is that the title has itself become a phrase in the English language to denote a bad situation that repeats itself.
In the US military, the phrase soon caught on with troops in Somalia during September 1993 (events later depicted in Black Hawk Down), President Bill Clinton referenced the film in a January 1996 speech about military operations in Bosnia and during the recent Iraq conflict the phrase was even military slang for a single day spent serving in Iraq.
The parable-like qualities of the film have seen it embraced by religious viewers including Buddhists, who see the themes of selflessness and rebirth, and Catholics, who see February 2nd as representing Purgatory.
In 2005 Roger Ebert placed it his “Great Movies” series, upgrading his original three-star review by saying:
“Groundhog Day” is a film that finds its note and purpose so precisely that its genius may not be immediately noticeable. It unfolds so inevitably, is so entertaining, so apparently effortless, that you have to stand back and slap yourself before you see how good it really is.
Certainly I underrated it in my original review; I enjoyed it so easily that I was seduced into cheerful moderation. But there are a few films, and this is one of them, that burrow into our memories and become reference points. When you find yourself needing the phrase ‘This is like Groundhog Day’ to explain how you feel, a movie has accomplished something”
Although it didn’t receive any serious awards recognition at the time, it has since appeared on many retrospective polls of great comedy films and the Writers Guild of America even ranked the screenplay as 27th on their list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays ever written.
This year the movie channel Encore even showed the film on a loop for 24 hours, a fitting tribute for a film that gets better the more you see it.
> Groundhog Day at the IMDb
> Reviews of the film at Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic
> 12 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Groundhog Day
> Buy it on DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon UK