Received wisdom is a tricky thing. Most folks will meander through life rarely bothering to ask why things are the way they are. This is especially true of holidays on the calendar. Over the years, I have tired of a lot of those “received” holidays–those days reserved by tradition or federal law. When I think of the holidays set aside as “federal holidays,” the array does seem like a decision made by committee. Consider that we celebrate Columbus Day, honoring a man that was truly vile and was probably a pirating genocide artist. But Columbus was Italian, and to make Italian-American voters happy (and to continue with the farce that America was “discovered”) we continue that holiday. Or take Presidents’ Day, a holiday that was once reserved for Washington and Lincoln alone, now extends to the likes of Millard Fillmore, Richard Nixon, the Bushes and Obama. Independence Day was believed by some founding fathers to by July 2. Labor Day in the US is not May 1 like it is everywhere else in the world (because May 1 was the communist and socialist holiday), etc. Then there are of course the homage holidays–those set aside for momma, daddy and valentines. Every day is their day, really.
Here on the Eclectic, I have taken up honoring some other holidays (Knut’s Day, The Armistice, Guy Fawkes Day, September 11), days that I revere and remember. Those days tie into my own family heritage, a certain rekindling of our Old European roots. Those days are also personal, having influenced my professional life. And chief among these holidays, for the former reason, is Groundhog Day. This peculiar observation, started by German immigrants to Pennsylvania centuries ago, was a turning point in my childhood calendar. Here, on this day, a rodent was invested with the duty to declare the winter doldrums to be over. In preschool, we would draw a Punxsutawny Phil groundhog on paper and glue his likeness to a popsicle stick. From there, we’d draw a landscape on another sheet of paper, with a little slit in the heath for the marmot to poke up through. Amazingly, I recall coloring the sky grey, earning a scolding from my Baptist schoolmarm. She declared that the sky could only be colored blue (how stereotypical). Clearly she didn’t bother to look out the window for the past five months. Thus, my earliest memories, of the Pennsylvanian homeland are of this odd ritual, and of course, questioning received wisdom and authority.
Unless that wisdom springs from the groundhog of course. Like so many traditions, the roots of this particular holiday trace much farther back in time. Ancient Celts and pagans centered much of their worship on sacred animals. In one tradition, called Imbolc, the pre-Christian Germans and Celts would honor the passing of winter by worshiping a bear, badger, or marmot; looking to the fuzzy mammal for a sign of winter’s end. As the old world was converted to Christianity, the tradition was absorbed by German Catholics as part of the celebrations of Candlemas (Read: The feast of the presentation of Jesus at the temple. How is that like presenting a rodent to the faithful?) For the Candlemas holy day, the devout often place candles in their windows. That tradition is also ubiquitous in Pennsylvania and beyond, as their denizens often keep electric candles on the window sill year ’round.) As the casting of a shadow by the morning sun would allegedly scare the sacred animal away, and with it, the hope of spring, Light (holy or otherwise), plays a role in the tradition.
As the first waves of Germans settled in Pennsylvania, they brought their winter tradition with them. However, no sacred bears or badgers could be found. The groundhog, that lovable over-sized ground squirrel, became a substitute god. While these observations occurred in several immigrant towns around Pennsylvania, it was the event at Punxsutawny that grew beyond the mystic and became a festival, beginning officially in 1887, and enduring. Their official god is named Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.
The basics of the tradition, according to the Groundhog Club’s “Inner Circle” at groundhog.org, goes like this:
“Myths such as this tie our present to the distant past when nature did, indeed, influence our lives. It is the day that the Groundhog comes out of his hole after a long winter sleep to look for his shadow. If he sees it, he regards it as an omen of six more weeks of bad weather and returns to his hole. If the day is cloudy and, hence, shadowless, he takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground. The groundhog tradition stems from similar beliefs associated with Candlemas Day and the days of early Christians in Europe, and for centuries the custom was to have the clergy bless candles and distribute them to the people. Even then, it marked a milestone in the winter and the weather that day was important.”
Under the constant care of the “Inner Circle,” local fanboys in tuxedos and top hats tend to the needs of Punxsutawny Phil. Now in his 125th year, Phil is kept alive with a special elixir that gives him 7 more years of life, so they say. As a weatherman, he is about as accurate as any other, coming in correct about 39% of the time. When not on the clock, that is to say, during the other 364 days a year, Phil lives in an elaborate wing of the local public library, on display for tourists, with his “wife” Phyllis to keep him company. On the big day, Phil is transferred to the ceremonial Gobbler’s Knob, a big empty field with a stump on a stage, where he is fitfully hoisted from the tree stump at the appointed hour. He then whispers into the president of the Inner Circle’s ear, in “Groundhogese” (a form of Pennsylvania Dutch, or Amish German), his proclamation for the year.
In its nadir in the 1970’s, the day would draw a few dozens souls would brave the cold and hike out to Gobbler’s Knob, the ceremonial home of Phil, and await his prognostication. Today, this event has gained national notoriety, picked up by the news media and popularized in the 1993 classic film, Groundhog Day. Pennsylvania politicians and presidential contenders seek him out for a photo op. The modest town of 5500 people grows to 30,000 or more for the week. The region cashes in–this year’s economic benefit could top $5 million as Time magazine reports. Of course, animal rights activists have pleaded to let Phil return to the wild, instead of being held in a large zoo-like display at the public library (he does live there with his “wife” Phyllis.) Other towns around America have tried to promote their own rodent as the true seer of seers, but the faithful know that Punxsutawny Phil is the one, true groundhog.
I am not alone in my adoration of this day. The 1993 eponymous film has become a legendary part of American culture. The central plot, of Bill Murray’s vile weatherman forced to relive Groundhog Day until he becomes a compassionate human being, has been lauded for its Eastern philosophy-like exploration of cyclical rebirth and renewal. In 2004, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg declared that film the greatest of all time (and I am inclined to agree). And in The Atlantic in 2013, the film was praised for its exploration of metaphysics. You needn’t go that far to realize the film is inspired by the very nature of this holiday–the natural declaration of rebirth and renewal, heralded by an unlikely mascot.
Aside from going to Pennsylvania to join the revelers at Gobbler’s Knob, how might you celebrate this day of renewal? Well, I tend to watch the film, just as people at Christmas might watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story.” I make an excuse to eat meatloaf (Ground Hog, get it?) and root vegetables, unless a Super Bowl intercedes. I might dust of my Pittsburgese and start “yammerin abaht how awful the Super Bowl will be withaht the Stillers innit.” Chances are, the Pennsylvania Polka will be played more than once. I often retell my preschool story and revel in my proud Pennsylvania heritage, to the ire of my friends and non-native family. Someday, I imagine I will take my kiddo on the pilgrimage to Gobbler’s Knob, to behold the world’s greatest weatherman at the height of his powers declare in his native Groundhogese the end of winter. Maybe I’ll teach him to color his skies grey instead of blue for his preschool class. Maybe he’ll yammer about Phil to his own kids.
But most of all, I celebrate the end of another long, hard winter…either now, or in six weeks.
Preschool Craft Photo Credit http://kiboomukidscrafts.com/preschool-groundhog-day/
Phil Photo Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images