I am actually writing this on Groundhog Day, February 2nd, even though it will not be sent until the 5th. But I share my birthplace with this age-old groundhog on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania and we have grown older together.
This curious holiday comes from our agricultural past and marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. If the plump prognosticator emerges from his hole on a clear day and sees his shadow, he will retreat and there will be six more weeks of wintry weather. BUT if he emerges from his burrow and does NOT see his shadow, then early spring weather is right around the corner. Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow more often than not, and in all my many years as a Pennsylvania resident, there were very few times when Phil did not see it.
But this massive celebration is enjoyed by all the residents of Punxsutawney and surrounding areas, continuing a tradition that was originally a Celtic festival marking the year’s midpoint between seasons. The day was called Imbolc, an old Irish reference to the soon-to-arrive lambs of spring. Imbolc signaled that the sun was halfway through its advance towards the spring equinox, and the season of new birth and light was on the horizon.
So, how does the groundhog fit into this ancient festival? In the 1800’s, German immigrants to Pennsylvania brought their own legends with them and they had looked for badgers for a sign. Finding no badgers but lots of groundhogs, they adapted the New World species to fit the lore.
Today, that lore has grown into lots of fun winter festivals, with Punxsutawney Phil and furry fellows in other states presiding. Unless you have actually seen or attended one of these celebrations, it is difficult to understand the excitement over a groundhog. But in this small western Pennsylvania town, Groundhog Phil draws thousands of spectators and lots of enthusiasm.
I had to learn to spell Punxsutawney early in life since I was born there. But for those who grew up in this area, we call it “Punxsy” for short and have many fond childhood memories of these special events that put this town on the map.