GROUNDHOG DAY By Dr. Patrick H. Lau

The trouble with weather forecasting is that it’s right too often for us to ignore it and wrong too often for us to rely on it.”  ~Patrick Young    

天有不測之風雲, 人有旦夕之禍福.

Groundhog Day 土撥鼠節 is a popular, amusing celebration based on folklore, held annually on February 2nd in many parts of the United States. During the event, thousands of visitors including television crews gather together in Gobbler’s Knob, in the proximity of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where the most-watched weather forecast of the year performed by the official groundhog Punxsutawney Phil (named after King Phillip) takes place. He emerges from his heated burrow at 7:24 in the morning to reveal his prognostication of the upcoming weather. According to the legend, if the day is sunny and he sees his shadow and scared by it, he will hastily scamper back to his burrow; indicating six more weeks of winter. And if it is a cloudy day and he does not see his shadow, he will stay around above ground; it denotes that spring is approaching. There is probably truth to this weather prognostication; in winter days when we see our shadows are generally cold, since there are no clouds in the sky to insulate the earth.

The origin of Groundhog Day can be traced to medieval Europe and Candlemas Day. Candlemas Day, February 2nd, is a holiday commemorating Virgin Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth (40-day purification period) and the presentation of Jesus at the holy temple in Jerusalem. On Candlemas Day, priests bless candles and distribute them to people. In addition, Candlemas Day is a winter milestone; it is the midpoint between the first day of winter and the first day of spring. People believed that a sunny Candlemas signified another six weeks of cold and snowy winter to come. And if the day was cloudy and the sun was not visible, winter was finally over. Early Christians had an adage for the tradition, “If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight. But if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.”

Additionally, in many parts of Europe centuries ago, farmers kept an eye on hibernating animals, such as badgers, bears and hedgehogs for the forecast of upcoming weather. When the animals emerge from hibernation, it indicated the end of winter; so the farmers could plant crops. Traditionally, in Germany, badgers were selected for weather forecast. If the badger came out of hibernation and saw its shadow, farmers would hold off planting crops, because snow and cold would continue. But if the badger did not see its shadow, spring was around the corner, and planting could be started. German (Dutch from Germany) immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania brought this custom to the United States. Finding no badgers, they adopted the groundhog as the annual weather predictor.

The first official Groundhog Day was proclaimed by The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper and celebrated in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on February 2nd, 1887. The editor, Clymer Freas, was instrumental in the creation of the holiday by recruiting a group of local businessmen and groundhog hunters selling them the idea. Since then, all the groundhogs performing their prognostications have been named Punxsutawney


Besides Pennsylvania, Groundhog Day festivities are also held in various cities

and states. Punxsutawney Phil apparently has several competitors in meteorology. Pothole Pete is the official groundhog of New York City; Buckeye Chuck of Ohio; Groundhog Jimmy of Wisconsin; Octorara Orphie of Quarryville, Pennsylvania; Smith Lake Jake of Alabama; and Gen. Beauregard Lee of Georgia which has been bestowed two honorary doctorate degrees, “DWP, Doctor of Weather Prognostication” from University of Georgia, and “Doctor of Southern Groundology” from Georgia State University. The Groundhog Day is also observed in Canada; groundhog Wiarton Willy is the star of the event.

In 1993, a fantasy comical movie titled “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell was released by Columbia Pictures. It was actually shot in Woodstock, Illinois. It drew public attention and popularized the Groundhog Day tradition, making Punxsutawney Phil a celebrity. Since the film came out, the attendees at the annual festival in Gobbler’s Knob have dramatically increased to the tens of thousands. In 1994, crowds numbering as high as 30,000 participated in the celebration. Annually, millions of people watch the ceremony on television or via the web.

Today the home of Punxsutawney Phil is a climate-controlled terrarium, located adjoining to the Punxsutawney Library. There is a glass wall facing outside to enable visitors to pay their respects for the renowned meteorologist of North America. He works only one day out of the year, and commands immense popularity and fame.

Taking into consideration the prediction of Punxsutawney Phil is accurate in 39% of the time and it merely involves 50/50% chance, this practice of foretelling the weather is evidently ineffective. When meteorologists forecast the climate, they scientifically factor in the temperature, wind speed and direction, barometer readings, cloud patterns, humidity levels and so forth, utilizing state of the art technology. Perhaps we should trust them more than the ‘intelligent’ rodent which is even scared by its own shadow. Nevertheless, this old fashioned tradition that people hold so dear will indubitably endure many more generations to come, probably everlasting.


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