Yesterday was Groundhog Day in America and 20,000 people gathered in Punxsutawney to await the prediction of the nation's favourite weather prophet: a woodchuck named Phil.

"The Great King of the Marmots rose from his burrow at first morning light: The sky was clear and the air was cool and the sun arose on the snowless hills. At 7.20, Phil came out and saw his shadow. Predicting Six More Weeks of Winter!"

That is how the Groundhog Day Homepage on the Internet reported a great American annual festival which took place yesterday. Every year, on the knoll known as Gobbler's Knob in the little town of Punxsutawney, Philadelphia, huge crowds gather on 2 February to await the appearance of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog with an allegedly infallible knack of predicting the weather. Yesterday, 20,000 had come to watch as he emerged from his electrically- heated burrow, looked for his shadow, then uttered his prediction - in Groundhogese - to an official of the Groundhog Club. The official then translated it for the benefit of the public.

According to the legend, if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, he will scurry back into his burrow because it means six more weeks of winter. If he does not, then spring will shortly be upon us. Yesterday, Phil's prediction was greeted by boos from the large crowd. According to Bill Cooper, president of the Inner Circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, what Phil had said translated as: "As El Nino approaches our western shore and changes the weather patterns, I see my shadow. There will be six more weeks of winter."

This was the 112th forecast by Phil or his ancestors, and the 100th time another six weeks of winter has been forecast. However, records from the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina, show that his accuracy rate since 1980 is only about 59 per cent.

While Groundhog Day has been associated with Punxsutawney since the first prediction appeared in the local newspaper, The Punxsutawney Spirit, in 1886, the tradition dates back to the old Christian celebration of Candlemas Day - also 2 February - when the clergy blessed candles and gave them to the poor. The weather on that date was considered an important omen for the rest of the winter:

"If Candlemas be fair and bright,

Come, winter, have another flight

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,

Go, winter, and come not again.

The ancient Germans translated that tradition into a belief that if the hedgehog saw its shadow on Candlemas Day, then winter would continue for another six weeks - which was the tale the original German settlers brought with them to Pennsylvania. There are, however, no hedgehogs in the Americas, but the groundhog - which was already revered by native Americans - was a good substitute. And so Candlemas Day became Groundhog Day - especially in the little town of Punxsutawney, which at the turn of the century declared itself the "Weather Capital of the World" and built a special home for its favourite groundhog on Gobbler's Knob. In 1993, Bill Murray starred in the film Groundhog Day and fame was assured.