Seeing groundhogs

Have you heard the news? Reporters and journalists from around the country have descended on Washington, D.C. to witness a most singular sight: just after dawn today, February 2nd, Mr. Obama will hesitantly poke his head out from behind the door of the Oval Office, where he has been ensconced for most of the winter. Quite a bit is riding on what happens next: if he can avoid seeing his shadow, he will emerge and begin to discuss smokescreen issues like high-speed rail lines and campaign finance reform. But if he does see his shadow, he’ll scurry back underground and we’ll get six more weeks of the healthcare debate.

Lucky for him, the Weathermen are predicting a cloudy day.

Pace all my liberal friends out there, that one was just too good to pass up. (If you see it on Letterman, you heard it here first!)

Seriously, though, the fact that today is Groundhog Day deserves some attention… or at least that’s what these people want you to think. Groundhog Day is an excellent example of one of those local features considered very, very important by a few folks in the country and largely misunderstood by everyone else—not unlike Wall Drug for South Dakotans or Evacuation Day here in Boston.

The good people of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (and yes, that’s the correct spelling) would probably never have attained national prominence if not for Phil, their loyal groundhog mascot. Amazingly, what is essentially a fat, burrowing squirrel manages to capture the attention of an entire nation for one day a year. So, in honor of Phil’s big event, here are ten things you probably didn’t know about Groundhog Day:

10. Supposedly, there has only ever been one Punxsutawney Phil.

Yes, that’s right, folks: he’s 124 years old and is kept alive by an annual sip of Groundhog Punch, the recipe for which is a closely guarded secret. (And it’s a good thing, too—imagine what Dick Clark wouldn’t give to get his hands on that!)

9. Phil is promoted and guarded by an Inner Circle.

These are the top-hat-wearing gentlemen hovering near the forefront of Groundhog Day festivities, and you can read more about them here. It is unclear exactly how one becomes a member of the Inner Circle, but I’m sure it involves oaths of secrecy, and it seems that either advanced age or copious amounts of facial hair is a prerequisite for the job.

8. There are 22 men in the Inner Circle, and each has his own title.

I couldn’t say whether they came up with them on their own or were given them by current members upon joining the Circle, but the diversity of these titles more than makes up for the lack of diversity among the group’s members. (Hopefully this will protect them against any eventual affirmative action lawsuit; their group photo is just begging for attention from the ACLU…)

7. My favorite Inner Circle title is “The Big Windmaker.”

I just wanted to get that one out there.

6. Out of 112 predictions on record, Phil has only predicted an early spring 14 times.

Interestingly, 4 of those times occurred in the 1990s alone, while there has only been 1 since 1999. (Global warming, indeed!) Commentators disagree about the implications of this record. While the Inner Circle maintain that Phil has a perfect record for accuracy, local weather records give him a 39% accuracy rating—which, when you think about it, is still better than most human meteorologists.

5. Phil has not missed a Punxsutawney ceremony since 1943.

Wikipedia attributes that absence to World War II (go figure), but I suspect that perhaps someone in the Inner Circle forgot to give Phil his sip of Groundhog Punch that year…

4. Phil actually speaks to the President of the Inner Circle.

This answers a question I never had resolved for me in childhood: how did everyone know whether Phil had seen his shadow or not? Did they just sort of… keep an eye on him? No, in fact, Phil delivers his prognostication orally in Groundhogese, which only members of the Inner Circle can understand. (Who’s been hitting up the Groundhog Punch now?)

3. Phil’s wife is (of course) named Phyllis.

I do not have reliable information on whether Phyllis is also immortal, but I hope so. If not, I’ll be forced to think of Phil as the groundhog equivalent of Hugh Hefner, and that would just be sad. I can tell you that Phil and Phyllis spend the majority of the year living together at the town library, so perhaps someone there can tell us more.

2. Several other groundhogs are currently attempting to steal Phil’s schtick.

These include old fallbacks like General Beauregard Lee (predicting since 2004) and Spanish Joe (prognosticating since at least 1999), as well as upstarts like Queen Charlotte, who has only been on the scene since 2008, and Dwight Scroute, who made a one-time appearance in 2005 to predict an unheard-of direct jump to summer (a forecast not ultimately borne out by actual weather developments). The Inner Circle declare them all impostors.

1. Groundhog Day is derived from a Christian holy day, and before that a pagan tradition.

Like many of our strangest traditions, Groundhog Day is deeply rooted in the past. Candlemas, celebrated annually on February 2 in the Christian church, featured a popular rhyme claiming that “If Candlemas be fair and bright / Winter will have another flight / If Candlemas be cloud and snow / Winter will be gone and not come again.” If we ignore the fact that this doesn’t actually rhyme, it sounds fairly reminiscent of our current tradition. And Candlemas itself (also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or simply The Presentation) correlates with Imbolc, a pagan Celtic celebration of the first signs of spring.

Which I guess just goes to show that we’ve actually hated winter for thousands of years.

Happy Groundhog Day, everyone!



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2 responses to “Seeing groundhogs

  1. Dawn Martin

    You forgot about Milwaukee’s own–Winter–she will debut this morning for her first ever prediction.

  2. Ha! I stand corrected. Although if she’s named Winter, that doesn’t bode well for what she’ll see (or say)…

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