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

Groundhog Day is February’s April Fools’ Day

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’ve never been a fan of Ground Hog Day. It’s like February’s equivalent to April Fools’ Day.

I see Feb. 2 as an artificial holiday. It is more marketing ploy than weather prognostication, designed to pump up a small Pennsylvania town to help distract those living in the country’s colder climes from cabin fever.

That was a long sentence.

I am pretty sure no one, other than the mayor of Punxsutawney, Pa. perhaps, takes the event seriously. Winter after all is driven more by calendar and climate than it is one day’s sunny or gloomy weather. Whether the groundhog sees its shadow or not, winter will continue until it really is over.

I hope I don’t sound too bitter.

This groundhog was a little to cagy for me. No matter what I baited this live trap with, the groundhog resisted and returned to its burrow under our back porch.
Besides, Punxsutawney Phil has developed some competition over the years. Not to be outdone by the silliness, Ohio has Buckeye Chuck, who is more or less the Avis of rodent forecasting. He tries hard, but doesn’t draw the crowds or paparazzi of his Keystone counterpart.

Where am I going with this? For one, back in time.

Many years ago when I was a young man in college who thought he knew everything, one of my roommates and I got into a mildly heated discussion about groundhogs of all things. And yes, we were both sober. We might have been bored or stubborn perhaps, but definitely not delirious.

Nevertheless, we did indeed disagree about this four-legged furry creature. My roommate, Joe, claimed that groundhogs and woodchucks were two entirely different animals. I said they were one in the same.

We didn’t come to fisticuffs, but Joe was pretty sure that he was correct. I was just as certain that I was right.

Finally, after too much verbiage for too long a time, we decided on a neutral determinant. We would look up the two words in my heavy-duty Random House dictionary. The thick reference book was my one major college personal investment. I was, and still am, a notoriously bad speller. Being a journalism major, I knew I needed to have my assignments completed with proper spelling. This was long before personal computers and word processors with built in dictionaries existed.

Since my parents had taught me to share, the dictionary held a prominent place in our little off-campus abode. It sat atop a desk in the dining room for anyone to use. It wasn’t uncommon for us to invite fellow students over to study together. At least we were supposed to be studying.

Since “groundhog” came before “woodchuck” alphabetically, I turned to my word first. I placed my index finger beneath “groundhog” and read, “Groundhog. A woodchuck.”

My roommate was in denial. I stepped away while he turned to “woodchuck.” “A groundhog” the dictionary declared, Joe’s voice cracking in disbelief.

If I recall correctly, the dictionary was closed rather suddenly. Joe surrendered, a bit grudgingly.

I learned much later in life that in Maine groundhogs are colloquially called whistle pigs because of the whistling sound that they make. In other locales in North America, groundhogs are labeled land beavers.

That brings us back to the present.

Just remember that Feb. 2 when you see a man dressed in a top hat and tuxedo holding up a groundhog, woodchuck, whistle pig or land beaver for the cameras, it really doesn’t mean a thing. Spring will officially arrive March 20 shadow or no shadow.


© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

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