I meant to send out this column two weeks ago but it somehow got lost in my spotless, well-organized office.
Here it is: Ever wonder who came up with the idea for Groundhog Day? Is February so drab, so dreary, so bleak and void of meaning, so lacking in things to celebrate or observe?
So, when someone suggested having a Groundhog Day everyone said: "Let's do it!"
I picture a bunch a guys sitting around a tavern or public house somewhere in Colonial America. As the snow piled up outside, they wondered what to do to kill some time. At some point – after about the 10th or 12th or 15th pint – one bloke pipes up and says, "Hey, how about we have a day dedicated to the groundhog or woodchuck."
Someone else in the company then put down his tankard of ale and asked, "Did I hear you right? Did you say: "‘How about a day dedicated to the groundhog or woodchuck?" A brilliant idea!" All of this is conjecture, of course, because I have no idea how Groundhog Day developed and history books are a little vague on the question. But somebody, somewhere, at some time, was the first to suggest that February 2 be known as Groundhog Day.
Most people don’t have strong feelings about Groundhog Day one way or the other, but residents of the small Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney make up for everyone else’s lack of excitement. The people of Punxsutawney go nuts about Groundhog Day in general and their native groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, in particular. Not having anything better to do, they celebrate Groundhog Day for days and attract more than 30,000 visitors to town who want to celebrate with them.
For the geographically challenged, I just say that Punxsutawney is located in northwest Pennsylvania, at the site of an old Indian camping spot, between the Allegheny and Susquehanna rivers. The name comes from the Indian phrase "ponksad uteney" which means "place of the sand fleas."
The name raises at least two immediate questions: Why would Indians want to camp at “the place of the sand fleas" and why would people later conclude that it would be a great place to build a town. Doesn’t “the place of the sand fleas” sound like a good place to avoid?
February 2nd is located – more or less – between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox and since ancient times people in the Northern Hemisphere thought that should be observed in some way. Groundhog Day is apparently the best idea we’ve come up with so far.
Groundhog Day enthusiasts believe that if the day is clear and sunny and the groundhog casts a shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If it’s cloudy, with no shadow, spring is on its way.
Sure it is.
The day is also known to some as Candlemas Day, a day when candles were blessed and put in windows. A Scottish aunt of mine from Halifax, Nova Scotia, had a rhyme about the day that went: “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, There’ll be two winters in the year.”
Historians say the Romans brought the idea of Candlemas Day to the Northern Europeans and they brought it to America. In Europe – years ago – people thought that animals were great predictors of the weather. Hey, they couldn't be worse than the people we have predicting it today. Am I right, people?
Anyway, the Europeans looked for signs of spring from the badger. Here in America we designated the groundhog and he was given the role of predicting what lies ahead weather-wise.
Speaking of roles, in 1993 Columbia Pictures filmed a movie titled "Groundhog Day," starring Bill Murray. In typical Hollywood fashion, producers decided that Punxsutawney, PA, didn’t look enough like a Pennsylvania town or a town that would go nuts for groundhogs so – displaying the kind of astuteness Hollywood is famous for – they decided to film the movie in Woodstock, Ill., which most everyone agrees looks NOTHING like a Pennsylvania town.
Here in Maine, Groundhog Day passes without much notice. Any groundhog you see outside in Maine on Feb. 2nd will probably be frozen stiff and deader than a doornail.
I’m not sure what kind of a prediction could be gotten from those frozen remains.