Celebrating Groundhog Day was not in my plans when I accepted a teaching position in Punxsutawney, PA. However, as Feb. 2 drew closer, the children in my classroom informed me that celebrating this observance was indeed a momentous event in the life of this quaint town. The locals’ enthusiasm was infectious, and I soon was caught up in anticipation of the festivities.
A group of residents made the first official trek to Gobbler’s Hill to consult the groundhog in 1887. The town attracts thousands of visitors through the years to experience various Groundhog Day events and activities on Feb. 2. The largest Groundhog Day celebration happens in Punxsutawney, where crowds as large as 40,000 gather each year. The average group had been about 2,000 until it exploded with the 1993 movie Groundhog Day which featured the town’s festivities.
The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club plays a vital role in organizing Groundhog Day in the town. The Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle is a group of 15 local dignitaries responsible for carrying on the Groundhog Day’s tradition every year. The Inner Circle plans the Groundhog Day’s festivities that culminate at 7:20 a.m.; when dressed in their tuxedos and top hats, they hike to Phil’s burrow on Gobbler’s Knob on Feb. 2 to await Phil’s appearance and his weather prediction.
Interestingly, most of us do not realize that Groundhog Day is rooted in astronomy and animal behavior. The date is linked to the Earth’s movement around the Sun; it marks the midpoint between the winter solstice in December and the spring equinox in March.
A medieval superstition was that all hibernating animals came out of their caves and dens on Candlemas to check on the weather. According to legend, if the groundhog sees his shadow due on a sunny morning, there will be six more weeks of winter. He then returns to his den and goes back to sleep. However, spring is just around the corner if he does not see his shadow on cloudy days.
Since the traditional celebration anticipated the planting of crops, the festivities’ central focus was forecasting either early spring or a prolonged winter. The return of hibernating animals meant nature was giving them a sign. A change in seasons was coming. And anyone whose livelihood or survival depended on changing seasons paid remarkably close attention to all signs.
So how does the groundhog fit into this ancient festival? Thousands of years ago, when animalism and nature worship were prevalent, people in Germany believed that the badger had the power to predict the coming of spring. They watched the badger to know when to plant their crops. The celebration of Groundhog Day began with German immigrants whose culture included the legend of Candlemas Day, also celebrated on Feb. 2, which states, “For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day, so far will the snow swirl in May.” There were few badgers in Pennsylvania; the settlers selected the plentiful groundhog as their hibernating animal to watch as a sign of spring. Although we recognize animal behavior is not the only way to judge planting dates, the tradition continues.
Sadly, for last year’s celebration, the 135th, Phil wore a mask, like all the Inner Circle members. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the ceremony was held behind closed doors, as no fans were permitted to attend.
However, for 2022, the Groundhog Inner Circle is excitedly planning a huge in-person festival. Information regarding events can be found on the website: www.groundhog.org.
Punxsutawney, PA, is about 4 to 5 hours driving distance from Annapolis. If you are seeking a unique brief getaway, this might be the place and event. If you cannot attend the in-person festivities, grab your coffee, tune in, and view the results on TV to discover Phil’s weather prediction!
What will Phil predict this year? According to Stormfax Almanac’s data, Phil’s prognostications are correct about 39 percent of the time. As the Almanac says, “If he sees his shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter; if he doesn’t, it’ll be six weeks until spring.”
Nancy J. Schaaf is a retired English/literature educator and also a retired nurse.
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