On February 2, 1887, exactly one year after Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper editor Clymer Freas suggested the idea of an official Groundhog Day, a group of well-dressed and maybe just a little bit silly local businessmen who referred to themselves as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club began a tradition that has to go down as one of the most ridiculous annual ceremonies I actually pay attention to.
I refer of course to that preferably not so bright Candlemas morning when the world’s most famous rodent named Phil appears before an adoring public to make an official statement regarding the amount of winter weather that remains to be endured.
Officially known as Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinaire, Phil is allegedly the oldest groundhog on record at the whopping age of 136. That’s approximately 130 years longer than the expected lifespan of a groundhog.
Phil’s “Inner Circle,” which includes the world’s only human speaker of Groundhogese, explains that his exceptionally long life can be attributed to a life elixir he takes every summer, the side effects of which can cause him to occasionally change his physical appearance somewhat dramatically.
Okay, it’s quirky. Maybe even just plain weird, but the Groundhog Day celebration draws as many as thirty to forty thousand visitors to the tiny town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania every February second. Hordes of groundhog enthusiasts flock to Gobbler’s Knob, the site of Phil’s proclamation near Downtown Punxsutawney, and probably spend a fair bit of cash while visiting the community.
And so, it makes perfect sense to have continued the event since the 1993 film Groundhog Day forced Bill Murray to live the day over and over again, and let the world know about this silliest of festivals. What makes less sense is that the annual tradition occurred for one hundred and six years before that. I somehow doubt that the members of the original Punxsutawney Groundhog Club foresaw a day when Hollywood would come knocking on Phil’s burrow.
Then again, they do have a connection to the Seer of Seers, and his accuracy in predicting whether spring is right around the corner or we will experience six more weeks of winter, is about 36%. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s less accurate than a coin flip.
But he is just a really old rodent. And groundhogs have not always been a part of such predictions. The Candlemas long-range forecasts themselves are actually much older, with a general acceptance that “If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, Winter will have another bite.”
Looking at this halfway point between the winter solstice and vernal equinox as a predictor of weather patterns coming into spring even predates Candlemas as a part of the Celtic celebrations of Imbolc. Groundhogs didn’t get mixed up with it until German immigrants brought the tradition with them to Pennsylvania and made it their very own.
But I guess it’s okay that they’re mixed up with it now. Punxsutawney Phil’s festival in Gobbler’s Knob has inspired at least thirteen similar festivals throughout the Eastern United States, because I guess it’s something to do while we wait out the last six or so weeks of winter. So, here we go again.
I have been known from time to time to be delighted by silly traditions and I confess that I have a fair few bizarre events on my bucket list. Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, dear reader, is not one of them, mostly because February mornings in Pennsylvania are really stupid cold. For you, however, I did watch the livestream of Phil’s pronouncement this morning from the comfort of my warm living room while still in my pajamas.
I may not have been there, but Miss Pennsylvania was, and so was the governor of the state, as well as a large number of reporters who were probably questioning their career choices. The top hat-clad president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was there, too. He had a lengthy conversation with a rodent, who I’m sad to say, predicted six more weeks of winter, and there’s only a 64% chance he’s wrong.
Happy Groundhog Day!