The day when thousands of people gather around burrows awaiting a sign from a furry animal to let them know whether or not spring is on its way is today: Groundhog Day.
In the United States the day will be celebrated with festivals, reaching a pinnacle when a groundhog emerges from its winter’s sleep to check for its shadow. There are many groundhogs that have their own events, such as Wiarton Willie in Ontario and Dunkirk Dave in New York, but forefather Punxsutawney Phil helped name the celebrated day when the newspaper The Punxsutawney Spirit printed the following in 1886, marking the first official celebration of Groundhog Day: “Today is groundhog day, and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen his shadow.”
But the story of the animal who runs back in his hole if he sees his shadow, predicting six more weeks of the winter season, runs further back.
The origins of Groundhog Day lie in Europe, where Candlemas Day was celebrated long ago. An old English song about Candlemas illustrates the purpose of the holiday: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, come winter, have another flight. If Candlemas brings cold and rain, go, winter, and come not again.”
Germans started the holiday lore by including the assumption that if an animal’s shadow was visible, six more weeks of winter were in store. According to the Web site groundhog.org, the Germans regarded the hedgehog as the animal intelligent enough to be able to notice whether or not it would cast a shadow.
“They used hedgehogs as an indicator as to when they should plant their crops in the winter,” said Alan Freed, member of the Groundhog Club and webmaster of the sites groundhog.org and punxsutawneyphil.com. “They carried the tradition with them when they came to America, but they didn’t have hedgehogs here, they had groundhogs.”
The Punxsutawney celebration turns 118 years old today. According to groundhog.org, Phil has seen his shadow 93 times, and has never failed to be accurate.
In fact, an 1886 newspaper dubbed Phil as the “seer of seers” and “weather prophet extraordinaire.” Last month, a contestant on Jeopardy lost $2,000 for mispronouncing Phil’s hometown by forgetting the letter “n” when attempting the answer, “Who is Punxsutawney Phil?”
Phil’s Jeopardy appearance, which wasn’t his first, is not the only instance of fame and notoriety he has achieved. Phil also appeared on Oprah and made a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet President Ronald Reagan. Phil, who sits in a heated burrow beneath a man-made tree stump bearing his name, was even featured on the JumboTron in Times Square for his 2001 prediction.
“Ever since the movie (Groundhog Day) came out it’s been bigger and bigger,” Freed said.
In fact, Freed said that before the 1993 release of the movie Groundhog Day — which featured Bill Murray — Punxsutawney’s largest turnout for the event was less than 1,500. Although this year the town expects a slimmer crowd due to Groundhog Day falling on a Monday, the crowds have reached nearly 40,000 in the years since the movie’s release.
“2002 was a big year because people were looking for a place to celebrate 02/02/02,” Freed said.
But Freed’s most beloved moment happened in another record year, when a new element of the festivities prompted Phil to go into hiding, nearly spoiling his famous prediction. “My favorite moment of all time was in 1996, the first year they had fireworks,” Freed said. “It scared the living daylights out of the groundhog.” Yet the fireworks remain, spiraling into the early morning air on the second day of February every year. Other events that have been added throughout the years include a birthday celebration for people with Feb. 2 birthdays as well as various dances, workshops and shows, including the Woodchuck Whittle Carver’s Show.
People are also given the opportunity to watch the movie various times throughout the four-day event and they’re even able to get married at Phil’s Wedding Chapel, officiated by the mayor and witnessed by a member of the Groundhog Club.
“It’s been a multi-day event for quite a few years,” Freed said. “People were looking for more and more things to do during the time they were here.”
But Feb. 2 remains the big day, and the main event remains Phil’s prognostication at sunrise, which has almost five hours of fun leading up to it. Guests are allowed through the gates at 3 a.m., but no alcohol is allowed with them, regardless of the fact that no one can drive to Gobbler’s Knob. Every person in the crowd must either make the almost two-mile trek from town by foot or pay a $2-donation and take one of the many shuttles that go up to venue. Many college students brave the low temperatures of Punxsutawney, which as of Friday was at about 15 degrees, and make the trip to Gobbler’s Knob, said Groundhog Day event coordinator Kerri Presloid.
“It’s something college-age kids really like to do,” Presloid said. “I know a lot of colleges make bus trips and get people to come down all at once wearing their school colors.”
But college students aren’t the only ones that are ready and willing. Last year, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell attended the event, which made him the first sitting governor ever to do so.
“I think it’s just something you have to do at least once in your life,” Presloid said. “It’s really exciting, yet so crazy that you’re standing out in 10-degree weather waiting to see a groundhog come out of a hole.”