What’s all the fuss about Groundhog Day?

Punxsutawney Phil

The 2014 version of Punxsutawney Phil. (Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

By Bruce Stambaugh

Another Groundhog Day is upon us. What’s all this silliness about anyhow?

I’ve never entirely understood the ubiquitous clamor over this unofficial holiday. Even as a youngster, I remember watching the Today Show on television on Feb. 2. Willard Scott, the show’s weather guy, got so excited if the groundhog didn’t see its shadow. Folklore says that means spring will arrive sooner than the official date.

That’s just nonsense, of course. Wild animals have some sense of impending doom. I heard stories about deer fleeing the lowlands along the Killbuck Creek in Holmes Co., Ohio well ahead of the devastating flooding in 1969.

But a groundhog, or if you prefer woodchuck, whistle pig or land beaver, predicting when spring will really arrive? I don’t think so.

The town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania garners the most attention on Groundhog Day. The good folks of the hard-to-spell town have been hosting the official celebration of this hoax of a holiday ever since 1886.

I was surprised to learn the event had been going on that long. It’s gained in popularity since the release of the Hollywood movie of the same name in 1993. Since then, folks swamp the little west central Pennsylvania burg wanting to get a look at the four-legged weather prognosticator from Gobbler’s Knob.

groundhog, Bruce Stambaugh

Having dug a hole under our back porch, this groundhog seemed to ponder whether it should enter the baited trap set for it. It didn’t. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Townspeople couldn’t be happier to host the throngs of curious visitors for their festival. They gladly take their money for food, lodging and trinkets. I guess in the dead of winter, people will do about anything to break cabin fever.

I was also intrigued to learn that Groundhog Day was a carryover from traditions in Europe. Most of them were borne around a religious holiday called Candlemas, where clergy blessed candles that were distributed to parishioners.

The candles were lighted on February 2. If the candlelight was needed due to dreary weather, the populous took that as a sign that winter was waning.

Who were these kind but superstitious folks? Why Germans, of course. And what nationality predominated in swarming through Penn’s Woods in the pioneer days of our great country? Why Germans, of course.

In clearing the land for farming, they found groundhogs rather numerous. The four-legged varmint also happened to resemble an animal from their homeland, the hedgehog.

In fact, pioneer farmers in New England had a very practical saying. “Groundhog Day, half your hay.” In other words, if a farmer had used up more than half of the hay stored for the winter, lean times could be ahead for the livestock if winter lingered.

So it seems that I might have to ease up on the good folks in Punxsutawney. Why not have a little fun and make a little money in the process?

Having something to celebrate at winter’s midpoint may not be such a bad idea, after all. Given the day’s history, it does have a purposeful origin. As time and traditions both transformed, a case can be made that Candlemas morphed into Groundhog Day.

I don’t see either the day or the fuss going away anytime soon. We can thank the Germans for creating the tradition. We can thank the hyperventilating media for extending it.

I guess this just goes to show that even when you think something is a bit unusual, you can still learn from it if you keep an open mind. I won’t demean Groundhog Day again. Neither am I planning on celebrating it.

I will light a candle in the day’s honor. While I’m at it, I better check my supply of hay, too.

shadows, winter

Long winter shadows. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

7 Comments

Filed under column, history, holidays, news, photography, weather, writing

7 responses to “What’s all the fuss about Groundhog Day?

  1. I wonder about the link to Imbolc, the Celtic celebration of the halfway point through winter? Maybe we’ve had hopes of early spring for longer than we think,

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  2. I loved Groundhog Day before Bill Murray made it cool — and visiting the good folks in Punxsutawney is near the tippy top of my Bucket List.

    In short, I am glad your views on the holiday are softening a bit. Maybe some day you’ll come around enough to consider clinking styrofoam coffee cups with me at Gobblers Knob on the big day.

    Like

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