Groundhog Wars


Rita explains the tradition of the weather-predicting Groundhog – and how it became yet another pawn in the Culture Wars…

Americans have endured the War on Christmas, the War on the Easter Bunny, and the War on North Korea – oh wait, that one hasn’t happened yet and it isn’t funny.  But now, ever eager to open new fronts in the culture wars, Americans have declared war on the humble groundhog.  To understand how Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous member of the species marmot monax, came to be indicted for “misrepresentation” we must travel back into the mists of time to uncover the strange mythology of Groundhog Day.

Like most secular holidays Groundhog Day has its origins in Pagan and Christian celebrations.  Iombolc was a Celtic holiday marking the midwinter point between the December solstice and the March equinox.  The ancient Romans might have been the first to use the day for weather forecasting.  They called it Hedgehog Day, predicting the start of spring by the prickly creature’s shadow in moonlight.  In medieval times February 2nd became the Christian holiday Candlemas.  Candles once distributed for the practical purpose of lighting through the dark of winter now represented Jesus as “the light of the world.”  But Candlemas was also associated with the change of seasons.  According to a traditional English saying:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain
Winter will not come again.

German immigrants brought the weather-predicting version of the holiday to Pennsylvania in the 18th century.  In their home country they used hedgehogs like the Romans, or badgers, to predict the arrival of spring.  If the creature saw his shadow when he peeked out of his hibernation hole on February 2nd there would be six more weeks of winter.  If he didn’t see his shadow then people could look forward to an early spring.  Badgers and hedgehogs were nowhere to be found in Pennsylvania so the groundhog became the official spring prognosticator.  It was only a matter of time before this quaint ethnic custom fell prey to the full force of American hucksterism.  In 1887 business leaders in Punxsutawney saw an opportunity to promote the town, inaugurating the elaborate ritual that continues to this day.  Clad in silk top hats and cutaway coats the town worthies process to the wonderfully named Gobbler’s Knob where “Phil” is coaxed from his hole in a conveniently placed fake tree stump.  The terrified rodent faces crowds in the tens of thousands and a barrage of flashbulbs from the assembled media, who report on the event with the breathless drama usually reserved for the details of a political scandal.  This year it turned out to be Punxsutawney Phil himself who became embroiled in scandal.

On February 2nd of 2013 no groundhog shadow appeared.  Winter-weary Americans looked forward to the promised early spring.  But all across the country bitter cold and record-breaking snowstorms raged on.  Some one must be to blame.  Some one must pay for the inconvenience and suffering of the American people.  In Ohio one American stood tall, fingered the culprit, and took decisive action.  Our hero is Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser who issued an indictment against Punxsutawney Phil for the crime of misrepresentation, for he “did purposely, and with prior calculation and design, cause the people to believe that Spring would come early.”  In non-legalese, the groundhog lied.  The prosecutor called for the death penalty.  “This is the only penalty available” he insisted, since Phil already lives behind bars in the Groundhog Zoo attached to the Punxsutawney Public Library.  Phil soon acquired vociferous defenders.  Some cautioned against going after Phil because the spirits of the Delaware Indians watch over him.  The Indian name Punxsutawney means “town of the sand fleas.”  A plague of sand fleas would doubtless descend on anyone who tried to harm Phil.  PETA got into the act, claiming that Phil should be relieved of his forecasting duties altogether and be released into the wild.  They urged Americans to consult a crystal ball instead.  The outcry was so great that the President of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle decided to fall on his sword.  Phil had actually predicted six more weeks of winter, he announced, but “I failed to correctly interpret Groundhog-ese.”  In the face of this confession Prosecutor Gmoser had no choice but to withdraw the indictment.  From his cage in the town library Phil issued a statement of relief and thanked his supporters, promising to return to his traditional duty next year.

But then came the conspiracy theories.  America’s indefatigable Culture Warriors saw a chance to drive another wedge between a credulous populace and those godless scientists.  Punxsutawney Phil, they claimed, was forced to make the politically correct prediction of an early spring by proponents of global warming.  Or, even more deviously, climate change deniers were behind it.  When Phil was proven wrong they could point to the unseasonable cold weather as further evidence that the earth can’t be warming.  After all, if it’s snowing in March global warming must be a hoax!  But spending as much time as he does in the library, Phil likes to think of himself as a member of the fact-based community.  He commissioned a study, published in the Annals of Improbable Research, proving the reality of global warming by a new scientific theory known as the Groundhog Oscillation.  Case closed.

Meanwhile here in Washington we’re still waiting for the cherry blossoms to bloom…

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.
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Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

6 thoughts on “Groundhog Wars

  1. Worm
    April 10, 2013 at 12:23

    Its good to know that the yanks do whimsy just as much as us lot, but I must raise a note of incredulity at the stated basis of this stuff – regarding romans watching hedgehogs and badgers casting moonshadows – is that really true? seems like an awfully muddleheaded way to go about things when they could just use an inanimate object to look at shadows far more easily…

    April 10, 2013 at 12:46

    In some English Renaissance play, I’ve forgotten which, there is a reference to the lions in the Tower seeing their shadows on some day, I suppose Candlemas, and knowing that they’re in for more winter. I suppose that if you’re main clocks are sundials, you want something more lively for long-term forecasts.

    I must say that none of the noise over PP came to my attention. Whether that we are uncultured or not warlike, the culture wars, or at least this campaign of it, escape our attention.

    Groundhogs are not impressive beasts. They cannot defend themselves like the hedgehog (or porcupine), they can’t fight like the badger, they don’t run particularly fast. Most of the time that one sees them, they are basking in the sun not to far from the hole.

    April 10, 2013 at 13:42

    Here in the Scottish borders there is a direct link between the game of rugby and the weather. ‘Don’t plant the tatties until after the Melrose sevens (this coming weekend) As Melrose sits under the Eildon hills (the Roman Trimontium) and when occupied by the Romano British the cattle were driven through the flames at beltane, a bunch of hill dwellers beltane around an oval ball atop the hills, who are we to argue.

    April 10, 2013 at 16:43

    by a new scientific theory known as the Groundhog Oscillation.

    …which holds that climate change is equally consistent with Phil seeing and not seeing his shadow.

    Hey Skipper
    April 10, 2013 at 17:46

    After five years of below normal temperatures, and, this year, record snowfall over the last week, I want Puxy Phil on a gibbet.

      Hey Skipper
      April 10, 2013 at 17:46

      (Writing from Anchorage, Alaska, BTW.)

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