Well, Christmas and the New Year now are behind us, and just around the corner is Groundhog Day on Feb. 2.
To young people today, who think of the Bill Murray movie of the same name as an oldie (unbelievably, it was released in 1993), “Groundhog Day” has taken on the meaning of going through an experience over and over. I actually use this expression myself, as I have been to way too many meetings like that, but I am not sure that reliving the same discussions with the same people has made me a better person like it did with Murray’s character.
Before this movie was released in the United Kingdom, no one there had heard of Groundhog Day. And when it was explained to the British, we were confused. Firstly, where on Earth is Punxsutawney, Penn.? And how do you spell it? Is it a real place?
Secondly, what is a groundhog? Apparently, it belongs to the squirrel family, but squirrels in the U.K. are never that big and sluggish-looking and usually spend their time nimbly running up trees. We even have a few of the traditional red squirrels left, although they largely have been displaced by the larger, more aggressive American grey squirrel.
The third part of the tradition did seem vaguely familiar to the British, even though it is rooted in an old German superstition: If a hibernating animal (often a hedgehog) casts a shadow on the Christian holiday of Candlemas, which takes place Feb. 2, then the winter will last another six weeks. If no shadow is seen, the legend says spring will come early.
German immigrants to Pennsylvania brought this tradition to the New World with them, and apparently American groundhogs reminded them of European hedgehogs. A traditional rhyme says “If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again.”
This tradition of weather prediction does resonate with the British, not only because it generally is so bad, but also because we in the UK have a similar superstition on St. Swithun’s Day, based around the ninth-century patron saint Swithun, an Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester known for his posthumous miracle-working.
On his feast day of July 15, it traditionally was believed that if it rained on that day, it would rain for the next 40 days and nights (This kind of prediction only could come true in rainy ol’ England!).
Unlike exuberant Americans, there are no exciting ceremonies on St. Swithun’s Day, and most British certainly would not consider rising early simply to watch a hibernating animal emerge from its burrow. And if you have teenage children, why leave home for this experience?
According to the website of the official Groundhog Club in Punxsutawney at www.groundhog.org):
• In 2014, Punxsutawney Phil is expected to leave his burrow at 7.20 a.m. Feb. 2 at Gobblers Knot.
• Founded in 1887, the Groundhog Club has an inner circle that is responsible not only for the planning of the annual ceremonies, but also the feeding and care of Phil himself.
• Dignitaries dress up in top hats and tails to welcome Phil, and an elaborate banquet is held the night before Groundhog Day in which the man and woman of the year for the town are named.
• Groundhogs usually live to be 6-8 years old, but every summer Phil is given a drink of a magical potion at the annual groundhog picnic which gives him an additional seven years of life (I am not making this stuff up).
• Since 2010, Alaska has observed Feb. 2 as Marmot Day because very few groundhogs exist in this state. The marmot does not have any weather predicting responsibilities, probably because it is a pretty safe bet that winter will last in that climate for more than six more weeks.
According to Groundhog Day organizers, the rodents’ forecasts are accurate most of the time. However, the National Climatic Data Center has described the forecasts as “on average, inaccurate” and stated that “the groundhog has shown no talent for predicting the arrival of spring, especially in recent years.”
But why let the facts get in the way of a good party?
God bless America!
Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.lesleyfrancispr.com.