Will we have six more weeks of winter – or an early spring? Now that’s a good question and such an important one that leaving it in just anybody’s hands would be a foolish thing. Before radar, before satellites, and yes, even before the weatherman on TV, there was (and still is)… Groundhog Day and Phil. Chuckle as we may, this American tradition has been around for a very long time, and I think it deserves some time and ink.
For some of us, especially in the younger generations, our knowledge of Groundhog Day may be limited to the 1993 movie or maybe just what we see on the news on February 2. This unique day can be counted among the many other customs that have come to America through immigrants. Most of us are aware of its legend through weather lore that holds that if a groundhog emerges from his burrow on this day and sees his shadow, he will be frightened back into his home, and winter will last for six more weeks. However, if it’s an overcast day and he doesn’t see his shadow, he takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground. Hence, spring should come early.
So, how does February 2 fit into this legend and custom? This day falls at about the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox. Some ancient cultures observed rituals that signified the mid-season and were watchful for the reappearance of hibernating animals as a natural sign that winter was coming to an end.
Early Christians observed February 2 as Candlemas, the day on which priests blessed candles needed for the winter and distributed them to the faithful. According to an old English song: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come, Winter, have another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Go Winter, and come not again.”According to an old Scotch couplet: “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there’ll be twa (two) winters in the year.”Another variation of the Scottish rhyme: “If Candlemas day be dry and fair, The half o’ winter to come and mair, If Candlemas day be wet and foul, The half of winter’s gone at Yule.” The Germans recited: “For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day, So far will the snow swirl until the May.”
The Germans had a tradition of marking Candlemas (February 2) as “Badger Day” (Dachstag), on which if a badger emerging from its den encountered a sunny day, thereby casting a shadow, it heralded four more weeks of winter. Many of Pennsylvania’s early settlers came from Germany, and they brought this legend with them to America. However, in Pennsylvania, they found groundhogs instead of badgers, so the former became their messenger. The first official trek to Gobbler’s Knob was made 137 years ago this week, February 2, 1887, when members of the local Elks Lodge first went there to consult a groundhog about the weather. Thus began the annual celebration of Groundhog Day in the nearby town of Punxsutawney.
Then, and every year since, a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil is pulled from his heated burrow so he can communicate his prediction to the “Inner Circle,” a group of men wearing formal suits and top hats. I’ve not yet been able to find out what qualified Phil and his successors above the other groundhogs, but I have to believe it came down to merit more than nepotism, equity, or politics….
While this little fellow has been the nation’s most famous forecaster, he is certainly not the only rodent meteorologist in the business. Birmingham Bill, Staten Island Chuck, General Beauregard Lee (near Atlanta), Shubenacadie Sam in Canada, and Potomac Phil, a stuffed groundhog (who magically communicates his predictions to an Inner Circle of people in top hats) are among others that also participate. While some say these guys are impostors, they nevertheless deserve at least an honorable mention for their efforts. Perhaps all or some of them may have even applied for Phil’s job. Of course, none of them can compare to the legend nor longevity of Punxsutawney Phil whose accuracy of about 40 percent has prompted comments that his forecast accuracy record rivals those of some weather forecasters on television.
Rumors also abound that Phil’s longevity and record have inspired some to speculate on Phil’s future with NOAA and/or as an advisor to the Global Warming/Climate Change movement, but I’m not so sure this is going anywhere since some believe his qualifications and record could be issues… I’ll leave that to the experts, pundits and comedians… Nevertheless, on this Groundhog Day we need to thank Phil and all his predecessors and colleagues for their many years of dedicated and faithful service.
Six more weeks of winter? Stay tuned to Phil’s forecast.
By Jeff Olson
Featured image by:Anthony Quintano from Mount Laurel, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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