Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day Historic Marker

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.

Groundhog-Standing2

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.

The light in the Window

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.

Groundhog Punxsutawney Phil climbs on the top hat of his handler after he did not see his shadow, predicting an early spring during the 127th Groundhog Day Celebration at Gobbler's Knob on February 2, 2013. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Phil

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.

Groundhog Day

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.

Candlemas Photo credit: martinak15 / Foter / CC BY

Preschool Craft Photo Credit http://kiboomukidscrafts.com/preschool-groundhog-day/

Historic Marker Photo credit: jimmywayne / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Standing Groundhog Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Phil, Hoisted Photo credit: scottobear / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Phil Photo Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images

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The Billy Goat

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In 1978, the Saturday Night Live writer Don Novello created the “Olympic Cafe” sketch for John Belushi, Bill Murray and Dan Akyroyd. In the sketch, the trio play a family of short-order cooks at the busy cafe. As customers arrive, the cashier brothers and short-order cook cousins shout down the customer’s orders, by repeating the only three items that the cafe carried…

“I’ll have a grilled cheese, fries and a coke.”

“No grill cheese, Chee-borger!”

“A coke?”

“No coke! Pez-zi!”

“Fries”

“No fries! Cheeps!”

The Olympic Cafe is a real place. Novello based his sketch on the Billy Goat Tavern, the simple Chicago cafe and burger joint founded by Billy Sianis in the 1930’s. The original tavern relocated under the elevated Michigan Avenue in the 1950’s. Situated in the epicenter of the Chicago publishing complex, the pub was a frequent haunt of Tribune and Sun-Times newspapermen, including the legendary columnist Mike Royko and film critic Roger Ebert. The place probably hasn’t been renovated since the 1950’s.  Encased under years of grill smoke, grease and grit is the history of 20th century Chicago–newspapers, accoutrements, and photos of favorite sons. Royko, Sianis and many old Chicago personalities are all gone, but their ghosts linger in the old wood panels, Formica and linoleum of the grotto where the original Billy Goat Tavern thrives.

Over the years, the Billy Goat has become a required stop for aspiring politicos, hungry locals, and camera-happy tourists. Certainly the business has suffered from the “observer-expectancy” effect in psychology–when someone thinks they are being watched, they change their behavior. I say suffer in that, the cantor’s bellowing of “chee-borger, chee-borger” might just be for show now. After all, business is good. Billy Goat has franchised the original, opening locations in the tourist trap Navy Pier, and even as far afield as downtown Washington, DC for Chicago ex-patriots. I opted for the original venue on my last Chicago excursion. Does the original Billy Goat ham it up for the crowd, I wondered?

Taking the stairwell below street-level, I leave the bright sky and pantheon of Chicago’s sky scape for the dark Chicago netherworld, a complex, tiered roadway that keeps downtown Chicago moving beneath the sidewalks above. A flickering streetlight casts a harsh beam onto the sidewalks and the riveted steel trusses above me. It could be any time of day upstairs. Immediately off the stairwell, hanging over the sidewalk and the front door is the tell-tale sign. I’ve arrived. Time for my SNL debut.

Entering, the lights are dim. People wait in line, but it is moving, jogging almost. Aside from the sizzling of the beef, the next sound I hear is:

“Chee-Borger! No fries, chips! No Pepsi, Coke!”

Was this a tourist ruse? Or, was the admonishment authentic? Billy Goat always served Coke, unlike the SNL sketch.

The line has to be moving faster, as I didn’t give much thought to what I wanted, but again, there were only a handful of choices. It seems the Billy Goat now has a variety of chips, and Coke products. And Schlitz Beer!

“Double chee-borger! Fries! No Coke, Schlitz!” I proclaim.

“Schlitz at the bar!” comes the retort.

I hand over my credit card.

“No credit, cash!”

Yikes. I didn’t recall that rule from the comedy sketch. Fortunately the prices were low enough that I did have some cash and change on me. Who can beat a $3 beer on a July evening in a big city? My burger arrives, glistening and naked on an over-sized Kaiser. There is a modest toppings bar to the side. The cashier has met his responsibility. Cheeseburger. Chips. For the fixin’s, you are on your own. Onion. Pickle. Lettuce.

No tomato, ketchup.

I take my burger to the bar. There, Billy Goat has their own brew. But for me, I couldn’t dare pass up on a Schlitz–an old Midwestern classic. Many a brewery were started by the sons of German immigrants to the Midwest. While Budweiser and Miller grew into behemoths, a few smaller  breweries did survive intact. In the case of Schlitz, nostalgia and venture capitalism saved the brand, being bought out by Pabst in the 90’s. Like Pabst, Schlitz is not anything special. However, it is the beer of the heartland, and a fine, clean lager suitable for washing down a greasy-spoon legend.

Across the way, I catch a glimpse of a women, mid-30’s, who’s a bit embarrassed by her company. The midlife crisis she came in with is a little deep into his bar tab. He hyper-extended his presence into the room, and unleashed through his Gary Busey-esque maw of teeth the words:

“Ask Not! What your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Ignoring the grammar of the famous line, Busey’s utterance, unexpected by the crowd, was silently acknowledged. A slight nod came from some before they returned to their private conversations.

A bit later, Busey rises for another:

“Ask NOT!…”

The bartender sees my perplexions, and offers “He’s an old navy guy. Loves America.”

Of course he does. His presence was a reminder that the Billy Goat has always been a Democrat’s tavern. During the 1944 Republican National Convention, Billy Goat hung a sign proclaiming “NO REPUBLICANS ALLOWED.” Busey seemed to have taken up the role of unofficial town crier, or Kennedy Cuckoo Clock, with his timely:

“ASK NA-HT!”

What was patriotic has now turned embarrassing for everyone.

“No kidding,” I mutter, “Another Schlitz?”

If you ever wanted to actually be in a sketch off of Saturday Night Life, step into the Billy Goat Tavern. Of course, the Billy Goat offers up more entertainment than just television impersonation. The original is far-more rewarding than any comedic or franchised facsimile.

Billy Goat Photo credit: Frank Gruber / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND