Early this morning, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, an unsuspecting woodchuck will have been roused out of a nice winter’s nap in his heated fake tree stump at Gobbler’s Knob, a couple miles out of town. Depending on whether the woodchuck sees the sun or not, members of the “Inner Circle” issue proclamations on whether we’ll have an early spring or extended winter.
It’s all a bit of fun to break the routine of winter, and the local celebration goes back to 1886. Prior to 1993, the ritual drew crowds of around 2,000 people. Since 1993, typical crowds have been in the 10,000 to 20,000 range.
The movie, Groundhog Day, features Bill Murray as a cynical TV weatherman who is sent to Punxsutawney to cover the event and gets caught up in a time loop of re-living the day until, at some point, he finds love with the lovely Andy McDowell and finally gets to move on. In this case, he decides Punxsutawney is now home.
The movie was an immediate hit and is considered one of the most beloved comedy films ever made, as well as one of the best movies, overall. While Columbia Pictures spent around half a million dollars promoting the film to the Academy Awards voting committee, Groundhog Day failed to get nominated for any awards, however.
Last year, Punxsutawney Phil didn’t have a big crowd, as festivities were canceled due to the Pandemic. It was just a small affair with the Inner Circle gathered to divine Phil’s prediction.
All the stuff and nonsense of Groundhog Day goes back to Candlemas Day, an ancient Christian tradition celebrating 40 days after Christmas, when Joseph and Mary brought the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to be blessed and the elderly holy man, Simeon, proclaims the baby “to be the light to the world.”
Candlemas has been celebrated since the 4th Century and is traditionally the day when people bring candles to their church to be blessed by the priest. The day has roots in ancient pagan traditions of lighting candles midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.
There is a tradition that the weather on Candlemas Day would be an indicator of weather for the rest of the winter, as told in this rhyme.
“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.”
There’s another tradition, that if people don’t take down their Christmas decorations on the 12th Day of Christmas, January 6, they must leave them up until Candlemas Day.
Meanwhile, back in Punxsutawney, part of the storyline about Phil the Groundhog is that the 1886 Phil is the same as the Phil of today, and that his secret to longevity is a drink of “groundhog punch” given to Phil at the annual Groundhog Picnic every fall. In real life, however, a woodchuck’s normal lifespan is just six years.
According to Wikipedia, the annual event is scripted ahead of time. While two scrolls are prepared ahead of time, Phil supposedly whispers his forecast to the President of the Inner Circle in “Groundhogese,” which only the President understands, and Phil tells him which scroll to select. In actuality, the weather at Gobbler’s Knob is often opposite of what it should be based on the scroll’s proclamation.
The proclamation is also wrong much of the time as far as predicting future weather. Nevertheless, the Inner Circle maintains that Phil the Groundhog is 100 percent correct. If it seems that he’s wrong it’s because the President of the Inner Circle made an error in translating Phil’s Groundhogese. On the other hand, impartial observers of Phil’s predictions place his accuracy as more like between 35 and 40 percent.
Groundhogs, or woodchucks, are not found in Montana, though two of its cousins are native. The Yellow-bellied Marmot and the Hoary Marmot, also called rockchucks, are Montana residents.
Presumably, their predictions are just as accurate as Phil’s guesses, though as they’re deep in hibernation, it might be difficult to interpret “rockchuckese.”
Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.