Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Take Your Groundhog Seriously

Groundhog Day is an important holiday where people gather in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to get a weather report from a frightened rodent. Actually, I can't be 100 percent certain that the groundhog is, in fact, a rodent. It might belong to some other animal classification such as "marsupial" or "woodchuck." I'm pretty sure, however, that it isn't part of the Meteorological Kingdom.

The way I understand this happens is that thousands of people gather around some sort of hole in the ground, or possibly a tree stump as I'm not really sure what groundhogs actually live in, and wait in hushed suspense for the groundhog to emerge before hundreds of news cameras. As tradition dictates, if the groundhog is frightened by its shadow, Bill Murray will blow up a golf course. (I am already aware that was actually a gopher, but according to biologists, who cares?)

Every year, I find myself fascinated by the Groundhog Day celebration because I've always been skeptical of the entire premise. For one thing, I'm not exactly sure how a groundhog naturally knows to come out of its burrow at 7:25 AM on February 2nd. In order to answer this question, I turned to the informative documentary film Groundhog Day featuring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Watching this, I learned that what really happens is Bill Murray kidnaps the groundhog and drives it off a cliff.

So that question is settled, but many more remain, such as: Wouldn't the groundhog be more frightened of all the people gathered around it than of its own shadow? I know I would, and that's why I ultimately decided against becoming a weatherman. To address this concern, I went to the Official Groundhog Day Website, (www.groundhog.org), where I discovered a number of things seriously wrong with these people. For example:
  • "After Phil emerges from his burrow on February 2, he speaks to the Groundhog Club president in 'Groundhogese' (a language only understood by the current president of the Inner Circle). His proclamation is then translated for the world."


  • "There has only been one Punxsutawney Phil. He has been making predictions for over 120 years!"


  • "Punxsutawney Phil gets his longevity from drinking the 'elixir of life,' a secret recipe. Phil takes one sip every summer at the Groundhog Picnic and it magically gives him seven more years of life."


  • The groundhog's borrow is called "Gobbler's Knob," which is just all sorts of not right.
I know what you're thinking at this point, and no, I don't know why they don't bottle and sell the "elixir of life" in Wal-Marts across the country. I imagine it would be a tremendously successful product. I'd drink it like it was Pepsi.

According to the Official Groundhog Day Website, the tradition began sometime in the Middle Ages, when European Christians would interpret the Bible in all sorts of wildly absurd ways because they were illiterate. (Many of these interpretations still hold to this day.) Some of these Biblical interpretations led to the observance of Candlemass, a gothic heavy metal band. The tradition of Groundhog Day is said to be based on these lyrics to an old Candlemass song:
Hear the cry
The cry of tormented pain
A voice darker than Evil
The deadly moaning of hell
At one point, the tradition was brought to the Germans, who naturally decided to get drunk and try to take over the world. Apparently Pennsylvania's earliest settlers were Germans and they found groundhogs in "profusion," which I'm not entirely convinced is a real word. They determined that without a specific holiday dedicated to it, the groundhog would surely die out from uselessness. Thus the tradition was born in America of relying on a small mammal to tell us whether winter will last until the end of winter.

Some of Punxsutawney Phil's more notable historic appearances include:
  • During Prohibition Phil threatened to impose 60 weeks of winter on the community if he wasn't allowed a drink. Lawmakers at the time gave the threat all the attention they felt it deserved.


  • In 1958 Phil announced that it was a "United States Chucknik," rather than a Soviet Sputnik or Muttnik that became the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth, because apparently the groundhog is sort of an idiot.


  • Phil traveled to Washington DC in 1986 to meet with President Reagan. God only knows why.


  • Phil appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in 1995. Oprah saw her shadow and the weather hasn't been normal since.

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