That’s right, today is Groundhog’s Day, a day dedicated not only to drinking a lot and watching Bill Murray movies, but also to recognizing the weather forecasting ability of a Jefferson County rodent. So is Punxsutawney Phil supposed to be psychic, you might ask? We never thought so; we thought it was more a matter of nature moving him in some mysterious way.
The ancient Romans used to disembowel birds and study the entrails – guts – to try to predict stuff. The ancient Greeks had women called Oracles, who would inhale volcanic fumes and then speak in gibberish which bystanders would try to translate. Something like a Bob Dylan concert. So if you think watching a giant squirrel wake up is weird, hey, at least we leave his internal organs inside where they belong. Also, there probably isn’t much in the way of fumes involved, since there’s no way stoners roll out that early, but we’ve never actually checked. Anyway, there’s got to be more than that to the story, right? What’s with the the whistle-pig seeing his shadow and all like that-there?
Okay, here’s the deal: February 2nd occupies a strategic spot on the calendar. It’s the dead center of winter, the midway point between the Winter solstice and the Vernal or Spring equinox. It’s also Candlemas Day on Christian liturgical calendars, the Feast of the Presentation. Like a lot of religious celebrations, there is a suspicion that church authorities strategically placed it there to sort of cancel out an earlier pagan holiday, in this case a mid-winter festival. In pre-Christian German lore, there is a story of either a badger or a bear predicting the weather at mid-winter. The English speaking world dumped the bear and related woodland creatures and based the mid-Winter prognosticating on the conditions that obtained on the big day. This resulted in rhymes like:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
Meanwhile in Scotland, which is arguably in the English speaking world, they rendered it thus:
If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,
There’ll be two winters in the year
Notice that in both cases, bright and clear weather indicated more winter. Sound familiar?
The beasts return when we fast forward to early 19th century Southeastern Pennsylvania, and there are German communities with “Groundhog lodges” where the day was celebrated with food, drink, speeches and skits or plays. Ever been to the Haufbrauhaus? It was probably like that, but with more, you know, fur-bearing quadrupeds.
So what’s all this have to do with Punxsutawney Phil? Well, it seems it took a newspaperman, Clymer H. Freas, editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit of 1887, to brilliantly combine the local ethnic German traditions with the Candlemas weather peculiarities to produce Punxsutawney Phil, a beast who predicts bad weather when the day is clear and the sun is bright and he sees his shadow. Then after a couple three schooners of bock beer and a hearty laugh Clymer went home to sleep it off, only to wake the next morning to find that people had taken his idea seriously.
So seriously that a 1993 hit movie and cult classic, Groundhog Day was produced and legions of Punxsutawney Phil clones now litter the landscape like so many Elvis impersonators. That’s right, there are now Punxsutawney Phil poseurs all over the place, like Buckeye Chuck from Marion Ohio, Woodstock Willie from Woodstock, Illinois, and Fred la Marmotte from Val d’Espoir, Quebec. Then there’s Sir Walter Wally from Raleigh, North Carolina, Holtsville Hal from Holtsville, New York and Pierre C. Shadeaux of New Iberia, Louisiana.
As pathetic as these loser animals are, they’ve given us an idea. Punxy Phil has got to be worth a fortune in souvenirs, knick-knacks and tchotchkes year round, not to mention the thousands of dollars visitors spend to visit on the big day. In the interest of scoring a fast buck, er, I mean, promoting the economic development of our struggling local communities, why could this idea not be extended to other areas, other events and other critters? Here are a few ideas we have personally written down on the back of a bar napkin which we found conveniently adjacent to our work area:
Homestead Harold, a chipmunk who, when he climbs up the railroad sign predicts twenty more minutes of trains at the Amity Street crossing.
Munhall Murray, a raccoon who, when he breaks into the garbage cans behind the municipal building, guarantees 2 more embezzlement cases.
Rankin Ralph, an otter who, when he dives into the Mon, predicts 5 more exchanges of gunfire.
Lincoln Place Leonard, a wolverine who, when the temperature is above zero, will steal your hubcaps. Also when it’s below zero.
It’s worth a try. Meanwhile, does anybody have Murray’s number?
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