After January’s snow and bitterly cold temperatures, many in the D.C. area are probably hoping Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t see his shadow on Groundhog Day this Wednesday.
The annual event, taking place Feb. 2, is seen as a quirky, albeit unscientific prediction of when spring will arrive. If the groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, emerges from his burrow at sunrise and sees his shadow, winter will be around for another six weeks. If the groundhog doesn’t see his shadow, spring will arrive early.
A group called the Groundhog Club handles the festivities — and Phil, who is snatched up into the waiting arms of its president. According to the club, after seeing or not seeing his shadow, Phil then reveals his secret in “Groundhogese,” a language only understood by the president, who then translates Phil’s prediction to the world.
There is even a local iteration of Punxsutawney Phil in the form of Potomac Phil, although unlike his living, furry Pennsylvania compatriot, Potomac Phil is a stuffed groundhog who makes his weather proclamation in front of D.C.’s Dupont Circle fountain. According to his Twitter account, he is “Washington’s most famous marmot” — a “humble, unflinching prognosticator.”
Various states also celebrate with their own groundhogs. While the groundhogs are usually given manly names, in 2020, New York’s Staten Island Chuck was actually a female groundhog named Charlotte. She didn’t enjoy a good fate, however: Former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio accidentally dropped her, and she died a week later.
Given that the shy mammal probably doesn’t relish the limelight — or being dropped — the animal rights group PETA has suggested creating a robotic Phil that acts like a groundhog, but, because he’s powered by artificial intelligence, can more accurately gauge the weather. No word on whether the Groundhog Club will ever ditch the tradition and go high-tech.
While Groundhog Day is a distinctly American tradition, it has international roots. Legend has it that it was brought over from German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in the 1700s. It appears to have stemmed from Candlemas Day, a Christian holiday celebrated in Europe on Feb. 2 — between the winter solstice and spring equinox.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that stalking a groundhog for his prophetic powers became a thing in rural Pennsylvania. But the revelry was brief for the groundhogs, which were eaten for dinner afterward.
Groundhogs are no longer on the menu, and today Punxsutawney Phil draws mobs of onlookers and cameras as he’s hoisted up by his top-hatted handlers, like the iconic scene from “The Lion King.”
Punxsutawney Phil’s own fame skyrocketed with the 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” in which Bill Murray’s character finds himself stuck in a small town, experiencing the same day over and over again. After the film came out, crowds swelled as thousands made the trek to Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney to watch the annual spectacle.
While the film popularized Groundhog Day, the groundhog itself isn’t all that popular with everyone. It’s a rodent — a cute one, but a rodent nonetheless — that belongs to a group of large ground squirrels known as marmots. Groundhogs, which weigh about 20 pounds, are excellent burrowers and feast on commonly grown vegetables, making them a nuisance to farmers and gardeners.
They’re also pretty lousy weather forecasters. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on average, Phil has gotten his prediction right 40% of the time over the past 10 years. Even his first prediction in 1887 only got it right for some regions and not for others. So, basically you could toss a coin and have about the same odds.
Then again, groundhogs aren’t emerging from their dens to predict the weather. They’re coming out of hibernation to mate. Other than finding a mate in the spring, though, groundhogs are solitary creatures. When autumn rolls back around, they build winter burrows that can have multiple exits and chambers, according to the National Geographic, which notes that groundhogs are “true hibernators,” going into a dormant state that causes their body temperature and heart rate to plummet.
Punxsutawney Phil also goes into a deep sleep, although he does it in his own temperature-controlled human-made burrow — befitting his outsize mythical reputation.
And unlike his commoner brethren that go by nicknames like woodchuck and whistlepig, Punxsutawney Phil boasts a much grander title. His full name? Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.
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