Stretching out on the tips of my toes, my elbows supporting me on the counter, I struggled to see the staticky, eight-inch television in my kitchen. Scarfing down my bowl of Cheerios, I hadn’t noticed I spilled them on my clothes because I was so mesmerized by the screen. Unluckily, February second landed on a Tuesday. So it was almost time to leave for school, but I couldn’t miss the grand appearance of one of the most famous celebrities. He wasn’t often in the spotlight, but today was his day. I saw him emerge from his home, all twenty pounds of him, and I held my breath fearing that he would, dare I say it, see his shadow.
“How does he do it!” I thought to myself, with the baffled mind of a third grader. This groundhog was better than the Easter bunny, or even Santa Claus, because I could actually see him. Granted he doesn’t bring you presents, but with a little hope (and a few clouds) he can bring an early spring! Or at least he can predict one, and Mom said he is always right.
For most people, Groundhog Day is not a celebrated holiday. Many live their lives February 2nd, only being reminded of its significance when watching the 6 o’clock nightly news and hearing a thirty second clip on Punxsutawney Phil’s verdict. And what a shame that is. Most people do not question why we have this holiday that pops up in their iPhone calendar dedicated to a rodent, or why there are fifteen men in tuxedos who dedicate their lives to this rodent. I did, and still do, find it utterly fascinating.
I finally asked why, and how, this tradition began. Groundhog Day originated in ancient European times, but has since been adapted. February second, the day halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, was believed to be a predictor of the upcoming spring. (So, even if Phil tells you there are six more weeks of winter, at least you know you made it through the first six.) As the Europeans colonized the Americas, they brought with them this seemingly odd tradition. Though many do not see the importance today, there was method in their madness.
The day was known as Candlemas Day to Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers in which those of the Christian faith would distribute candles blessed by the clergy. During these times, winter did not mean skiing and hot cocoa in a furnace-heated house. Winter was a scary time in which food had to be saved and rationed, and staying warm was a struggle.
“So mom, if he sees his shadow, he goes back to bed, but doesn’t that mean it should be sunny and warm?” I was confused as a third grader, and remain so today. So, if it was a sunny day, it was to predict more winter, but if it was a cloudy day, it was meant to predict an early spring. I ran outside to check my own shadow. Granted I am not a groundhog. The German, English, and Scottish all find commonplace in this tradition and are able to articulate it a little better than I can, with an English song saying:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again.
As these early settlers got to know the land, they also came to see the overabundance of groundhogs. They were similar to the European hedgehog, which they had used previously, and they found it to be a suitable replacement in the new world. The Europeans viewed the hedgehog as one of the most intelligent animals, and therefore trusted it on this day for its prediction of the coming weather. I have never been too up close and personal with either a hedgehog or a groundhog, though I trust that the founders of this holiday would not settle for second best.
So how do you say the really long name of that town that starts with a “P”? Punks-a-toe-knee? Well, close. Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, would be undeniably unheard of if it wasn’t for the most famous groundhog Phil. The only reason Punxsutawney gets so much press is the immense amount of effort they put into this seemingly forgotten holiday. Though, unlike those that actually celebrated Groundhog day for the first time, the only thing that Punxsutawney is religious about is the fame and celebration that accompanies February second.
Even more intriguing than Phil himself on this special day may be his “Inner Circle”. Many attribute the success and popularity of Punxsutawney to the Inner Circle due to their unhindered support and efforts to organize for the famous animal. But they do not take this holiday lightly. They are fully dedicated and serious when it comes to this annual event. And to shut down rumors about the Inner Circle predetermining Phil’s decision, they would like everyone to know that, “No, Punxsutawney Phil’s forecasts are not made in advance by the Inner Circle. After Phil emerges from his burrow on February 2nd, he speaks to the Groundhog Club President in Groundhogese. His proclamation is then translated for the world.”
Punxsutawney Phil made his very first prediction in 1887, and has continued to do so every year since. Well, at least the official groundhog website claims that he has been alive since then, but I have my reservations. They say his ability to do so comes from a sip of the magical “elixir of life” that extends his life by seven years, that he is sure to drink every summer at the groundhog picnic. He is also the only real predictor, and everyone else is fake. And if you watch the reports of any other groundhog on Groundhog day, it’s just as fake as seeing Santa in the mall.
So, as you can see, there’s a ton of pressure put on this poor groundhog’s shoulders. Granted, Phil is a little overweight in comparison to his peers, but he truly has one of the most difficult jobs in the book. The Inner Circle will assure you that Phil’s predictions are not even predictions, since they are 100% correct 100% of the time. Statistically, this may not be true since warmer weather in February does not always coincide with Phil’s prediction of an early spring. Either way, spring will come in six weeks and winter will end then, too. And either way, you considered the weather prediction of a groundhog.
I crawled into bed, a little more smiley than usual. Although there were only a few hours left of Groundhog day, and I was disappointed I would have to wait another 365 days for my favorite holiday to come around again, I still dozed off with a smile on my face. I woke up the next morning on February 3rd, with the temperature just above freezing, and I threw my shorts and tank top on. Afterall, Phil did say we would have an early spring, and he’s never wrong.