Writing for a community paper in a Pennsylvania German area (and a Bachman on the maternal grandmother's side), I have embraced Groundhog Day. After all, it is one of my biggest news days of the year. I cover a dawn event and an evening dinner. I struggle each year for a theme. Two years ago, it was an outsider's view of Groundhog Day (a take-off on a famous Andy Griffith routine on football) and last year, it was a challenge to the two school districts I covered as to why they weren't closed on Feb. 2 so kids could attend the festivities. Yes, you can't be too serious covering Groundhog Day. Today's reflections, however, are on tradition and keeping it alive while assimilating into culture.
February 2, 2010
There were about 50 people gathered at the Jordan Creek today in South Whitehall Township. Of course, Carson Frey, Haaptman (or Big Cheese) of Number16 Grundsau Lodge um Yaden, estimated the crowd at 1,000. As we arrived on the banks of the Jordan Creek near Wehr’s Bridge, dawn was just breaking over the Lehigh Valley. According to the car temperature gauge, it was about 20 degrees outside and a light breeze and the icy creek made it feel a bit cooler.
Still, the 50 or so people didn’t seem to mind the morning chill at all. While bands were playing, national media was gathered and protesters were expected to rally against the treatment of Punxsutawney Phil, the gathering at Jordan Creek had none of that. It is kind of funny that protestors would say Phil is mistreated. Most groundhogs end up shot or run over by cars. Phil lives in luxury. Of course, Phil is a fraud.
I say that because Phil speaks English. No self-respecting groundhog or grundsau speaks English. Yes, the Pennsylvania German handlers have assimilated but not the grundsau himself. And not in the Lehigh Valley, the home to over a dozen Grunsau Lodges. The granddaddy of them all, Grundau Lodge Numer Ains, will have its annual dinner tonight. Like the event this morning it will have several men in top hats to bring forth the groundhog. Like the event this morning, everything will be in Pennsylvania Dutch. I’ll cover the event even though I understand very little.
They will gather tonight and sing “der Schnitzelbank” and I’ll wonder what they are singing. As always, the evening event which has gone on for several decades, like Frey’s 4th annual dawn celebration, combines German tradition and American patriotism. It is, after all, what the day is all about.
The always sing “My County Tis of Thee” in German, of course. They will sing the national anthem. They will stand and take a groundhog pose as someone reads a very long address (punctuated by laughter at off-color jokes). I’ll pick up a word here and there (like Obama or Tiger Woods, perhaps). They will eat their healthy German-American dinner where everything is fried, buttered and covered with gravy). As soon as the dishes clear, the female servers will be gone and it will be a group of 300 men (mostly older) who will gather for the business meeting and the skit. Last year’s skit was men dressed as women protesting the exclusion of women. It is good fun if you don’t take it too seriously—like by protesting the treatment of groundhogs.
Groundhog Day and Grundsau Lodges grew out of the anti-German sentiment after World War I and a desired of patriotic German-Americans to celebrate both cultures. It isn’t really about weather forecasting, nor is it about groundhogs.
It is about heritage. Unlike Bill Murray, Stanley Roth of Schnecksville got that with a single visit to the Feb. 2 event.
“I was wondering why I got up so early to do this,” Roth mentioned as we were leaving the event. “Now I know why.”
Roth spoke of his German heritage, of grandparents speaking Pennsylvania Dutch and of his own experience teaching “Schnitzelbank” in the Northwestern Lehigh School District.
He now knew why he got up so early and braved the cold. It was to hear songs and a prayer in Pennsylvania German and then to await the arrival of the guests of honor.
As if on cue (and having their sled attached to a string helps), the two groundhogs that grace Lodge 16 started their sled journey across the frozen Jordan.
Yahdey (who name tends to be spelled a new way each year) and Lee (his grandson) made the two-minute trip from the other bank. While Yahdey, whose joints were stiff in the morning cold (as happens when you are shot, stuffed and mounted), stayed with the sled, Lee jumped into the arms of Bobby Schantz and started to frolic with the crowd.
However, serious work remained. Lee had to deliver Yahdey’s prediction as to the weather. He excitedly spoke with Carson Frey.
“I left out my hearing aid, so you better do this,” Frey said to a nearby David Adam, who then relayed the message to Frey. The crowd groaned a bit as they heard that there would be six more weeks of winter.
Since Yahdey is a stuffed groundhog who was shot in a backyard years ago and is now the stuffed and mounted mascot of the lodge and Lee is a hand puppet, there were no animal rights protesters such as those who think Punxsutawney Phil should be replaced with a mechanical groundhog.
Phil, of course, lives a pampered life in a heated cage that many groundhogs would treasure. After all, the other 364 days of the year, they are backyard pests that are often target practice for frustrated homeowners or an ugly “thump” for motorists.
Still, for one day, the grundsau is king. Frey and his group plan to be back next year, at dawn, at the same site. For those who have never experienced the real Groundhog Day, especially those with young children, it is a date worth circling on your calendars now so you don’t forget.
It is also a day to reflect on assimilation in this day and age when we seem to be split on the issue of immigration. The men (and women are excluded so it is men) who attend these Grundsau dinners, are Pennsylvania German for the night but American 365 days a year. They keep these lodges to keep their dialect alive because they have assimilated into American culture, just like the Italians and Irish, the Hungarians and Polish and all of the other immigrant waves of the past.
There was a difference between these groups and the immigrants of today. You don’t see public signs in English and Pennsylvania German. You seldom see a shopkeeper with “Ich sprechen Deutsch” in his window. These prior groups did it right—they kept their but were first and foremost American. The Pennsylvania Germans needed Groundhog Day and Grundsau Lodges as a way to keep their culture alive. So, when you look at that seemingly quaint custom of talking to a large rodent, understand what is behind it. That is lost in Punxsutawney but not so in the Lehigh Valley.