What were you doing February 2nd? If you’re a football fan, you were probably either mourning the Panthers defeat at their first-ever Super Bowl appearance, or reveling in the Patriots 2nd victory in just over that many years. If not…ah, who are we kidding? You spent the day talking about Janet Jackson’s breast.
Meanwhile, all across North America, almost unnoticed, eclipsed by a media frenzy and national scandal, something else was poking out into the light, wiggling a bit, and then returning to its shadowy home.
That’s right. It was Groundhog Day.
I know, you’re probably saying, “Eh, who cares?” As it turns out, a lot more people than you probably imagine. In fact, last year one particular groundhog drew a crowd of over 30,000 people. No lie. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit.
For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past 117 years, the holiday centers around a furry little marmot called a groundhog. Legend has it that if the little guy comes out of his burrow and sees his shadow, he’ll be frightened back into the ground and we’ll get six more weeks of winter. If it’s cloudy, he hangs out and Spring is just around the corner.
So just how did we come up with this highly scientific method of weather prediction? Well once upon a time there was a pagan festival of mid-winter, called Imbolc. Not being overly fond of pagan rituals, but faced with the considerable popularity of such celebrations among the common folk, the Christian church co-opted the holiday. They labeled it Candlemas and celebrated by blessing the candles to light the mid-winter darkness. An offshoot of this popular holiday was a poem that reads,
”If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter has another flight
If Candlemas brings cloud and rain
Winter will not come again.”
So we’ve got the weather prediction part down. Where’s the groundhog fit in? Well, it turns out that the Leni Lenape tribe of native Americans believed that prior to emerging as men, their ancestors roamed the earth as “Oijik”, or as the settlers pronounced it – “Woodchuck” or groundhog. Not seeing the connection? Don’t feel bad. No one did for long, long time. It wasn’t until 1887 that Clymer H. Freas, City Editor of the Punxatawney Spirit, made the leap and created the first official Groundhog Day along with America’s first official Groundhog, Punxatawney Phil.
If you’ve seen the movie “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray, you pretty much know how it works. Thousands of people descend on Gobbler’s Knob, the center of the small Pennsylvania town of Punxatawney. Accompanied by festive music and fireworks, the crowd watches as Phil (the latest incarnation, anyway. Groundhogs have an average life expectancy of less than 10 years) is poked and prodded out of his heated artificial tree stump, and there is much rejoicing and carrying on.
What you may not know is that while being far and away the most famous, Phil is also far from being the only groundhog in this profession. Since 1948 Phil has had competition from Jimmy the Groundhog in Wisconsin. Not to mention more recent additions like New Hampshire’s Pennichuck Chuck, NY’s Dunkirk Dave, Ohio’s Buckeye Chuck, and in nearby Quarryville, PA, Octorara Orphie. In fact, there are more than 25 official groundhogs in the United States, and at least 4 in Canada, not counting stuffed, fake, or animatronic groundhogs.
Pierre C. Shadeaux in Louisiana, French Creek Freddie in West Virginia, Buckeye Chuck, Dunkirk Dave, the list goes on. (With one notable exception being Maine, where the Concord Monitor in Augusta reports, “No groundhog in his right mind would come out of hibernation this early in Maine”).
And if Georgia’s most famous groundhog, General Beauregard Lee is any indication, a good weather-hog can really live large. The 14-year-old General Lee has become so fat that his keepers had to cut the opening wider so that he could fit through the door to make his appearance.
But if being a groundhog can be glamorous, it seems it can also be a strange and sometimes even sordid affair. Check out some of these facts:
- Wiarton Willie, Ontario’s famous albino groundhog died unexpectedly four days before Groundhog Day. At the ripe old age of 22, you couldn’t really blame him, but his handlers failed to tell anyone and so on the big day they were forced to announce to the waiting crowd that Willie was dead, sending children and adults home in tears. CNN would later show Willie’s body displayed in a tiny coffin, surrounded by mourners.
- It gets worse. Later reports would reveal that the body in the coffin was not actually Willie’s, but that of a stuffed groundhog they’d happened to have lying around. Apparently Willie’s body had been found in such a state of decay that it couldn’t be displayed. They ended up digging up the fake Willie and re-burying his remains.
- Lily the groundhog in St. Louis is, well, something of a curmudgeon. She’s replacing the previous groundhog, Chester, who died of Cancer in 2002, and frankly, she doesn’t seem want the job. It’s pretty much her way or the highway, so they just kind of leave her alone. (For those of you who noticed the gap, there was no groundhog in 2003, so they used Prairie Dogs. I kid you not.)
- And then there’s Wyoming’s Lander Lil. Or at least, there was. She was kidnapped. If you have any information, please contact the State of Wyoming.
In case any of you are starting to think that this all seems a bit biased, and that it’s perhaps a bit unfair that groundhogs should get all the glory, fear not. Groundhog Day is an equal opportunity holiday. Take for example Mr. Prozac the Llama of Oxford, MI. He’s been filling in for his friend Noah John Groundhog since he died in April 2002 of injuries sustained in a traffic accident in 1998. Somehow that makes Vancouver’s Furby the Wonder Chicken seem almost normal.
But you don’t need a groundhog, or even a llama or a chicken to celebrate. Just ask the town of Middletown, CT. They’ve been celebrating Groundhog Day since 1978 with a parade in which “Essex Ed” – an oversized artificial groundhog – is lead through the streets of town behind a 1931 Ford, accompanied by an honor guard wearing groundhog hats. A fife and drum band supplies the music while on-lookers bang pots and pans. An early version of Essex Ed was made from papier-mache, but it was attacked and burned by an unbeliever. Today’s version is made of fiberglass.
Still the question remains, with all of these groundhogs giving independent and often conflicting reports, who do you believe? Despite the General’s nearly flawless record, and 117 years of historical data from Punxatawney, perhaps the best advice comes from Sondra Katzen of the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. “Well, whether you believe it or not,” says Katzen, “spring normally comes about six weeks after early February no matter what happens”.