Most of those famous little furry creatures with the funny names probably take no note of the day other than being startled by all the people as they emerge from their burrows on Feb. 2. But you can be sure that their actions will be noted, particularly whether they dart back underground or remain to “enjoy” their notoriety on Groundhog Day 2013.
The best-known of the four-footed forecasters, of course, is Punxsutawney Phil, who hails from Pennsylvania; and well-dressed humans have been gathering since 1887 to note whether Phil “sees his shadow” in the morning. There are other famous groundhogs as well, but Phil is Number One.
The tradition originates, according to those who make it their business to know such things, in the celebration of Candlemas, or the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Even the ancients, it seems, needed an excuse for a party halfway through the long winter.
Tradition has decreed that if the groundhog sees its shadow (on a bright, sunny day in early February, no matter what the temperature and existing conditions) and returns to the shelter of its underground home, the above-ground residents will face the prospect of six more weeks of winter. Conversely, if it’s a frightful day, weatherwise, for the folks looking for a sign from the groundhog, spring is on its way.
So much for the forecasting: Phil, over the last 25 years, has only been “right” 10 times. Last year, he saw his shadow, signifying more winter to come. Instead, the National Weather Service recorded the warmest February and March in history. And, if you consult the records kept since 1887, Phil and his predecessors have been correct only 39 percent of the time. But, as the Punxsutawney organizers of the event say, “It’s not about the prediction.” Phil even has a “Club,” a newsletter and a website.
Those tuxedo-clad, top hat-wearing gentlemen who organize the event, “The Inner Circle,” admit that it’s all about the fun; and the estimated 35,000 spectators who will gather tomorrow morning before dawn in the snow and cold in a small town in Pennsylvania agree. It’s one of those “great American folk festivals” that folks everywhere hang on to. Perhaps it’s what makes us what we are as humans. In the cold of winter, the way winter has been this year for much of the country, perhaps an excuse to smile, even if fleeting, is important.
And, if that funny little furry creature with the simple name emerges to an overcast sky with no sun in sight? Well, then the prospect of an early end to winter may lift spirits high enough to carry everyone through the rest of the cold season, no matter how long it lasts.