Every civilization has its odd, quirky rituals, whether it be the running of the bulls in Spain, or the rolling of the cheeses in Britain. In America we have Groundhog Day, a hopeful harbinger of spring held each year on Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney, Penn.
Punxsutawney Phil, the resident groundhog, will emerge from his burrow, and, depending on whether or not he sees his shadow, will determine whether or not we’re due for another six weeks of winter.
Let’s get on thing right out of way here — just what is a groundhog, anyway? Well, groundhogs are a form of giant ground squirrel, known as mamosets, which can grow up to two feet long.
They can live about 10 years in captivity, although Phil is said to imbibe a magic potion that has kept him breathing for well over a century. Alternately known as woodchucks — that is, after the Delaware Native American legend of Wojak — they spend pretty much the whole winter hunkered underground, where they can lose as much as half their body weight by February.
The local tribes revered these animals as the living embodiment of their ancestors. According to their legends, their forebears began life in “Mother Earth," only emerging later to hunt and live as men.
When the Native Americans settled in this part of Pennsylvania, they dubbed the area “Ponksaduteney,” meaning “town of the sandflies.”
By the 18th century, German immigrants had moved into the neighborhood, bringing with them their own traditions. For our purposes, the most notable of these is Candlemas Day, a tradition with ancient pagan roots, where it was known as Imbolc. The observance of this celebration was held halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
According to tradition, if the weather was fair, the second half of the winter would be stormy and cold. It was the tradition for clergy to bless candles and distribute them to their flock at this time. Badgers also figured largely in this tradition, for if they came out of their burrows and saw the sun, the rest of the winter would be harsh.
Unfortunately for the Germans, badgers weren’t nearly as plentiful here as they had been in Europe, so groundhogs were recruited to fill the bill. The tradition of checking on the habits of these giant squirrels seems to date back to at least the mid-19th century, as attested to in this Feb. 4, 1841 entry in the diary of storekeeper James Morris, of Morganstown:
"Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate."
Even with that, it would take another four decades before the tradition of Groundhog Day would be formally inaugurated. In 1886, Clymer Freas, editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit, published a proclamation that would echo right down to the present day.
"Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow,” he wrote. The groundhog was officially given the name "Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary,” and the town was cited as “Weather Capital of the World.”
Freas sold the idea to a group of businessmen with the idea of bringing tourism and commerce to the town, and it officially took off the next year, as the newly formed Punxsutawney Groundhog Club trekked up to Gobbler’s Knob, where they observed the rodent emerging from his winter home.
The ritual has been observed ever since, as the festivities are presided over by a group of local dignitaries known as the Inner Circle, replete with top hats and frock coats.
There, they conduct the official proceedings in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. (They supposedly speak to the groundhog in “Groundhogese.”)
Punxsutawney only has about 6,000 residents in total, but tens of thousands of people show up each year to observe this ritual. In 1989, the tradition grew new legs with the release of the Bill Murray vehicle of the same name, although it was actually filmed in Woodstock, Ill.
So, just how accurate a weather forecaster is Punxsutawney Phil? Not that great, as it turns out, as he’s only right about 40 percent of the time. Staten Island Chuck, on the other hand, is reportedly accurate at almost 70 percent.
But it’s not about meteorology, really. This is a time-honored tradition that many still adhere to, and one that shows no sign of going away in the immediate future.