On 2 February in Punxsutawney PA, a groundhog named Phil predicted six more weeks of winter by casting a shadow. He had company. The annual tongue-in-cheek ceremony on Groundhog Day has attracted ever larger crowds over the years (the 2020 edition allegedly saw 40 000 attending), and I wanted to check what so much national notoriety does to a local festivity.
Getting there is not easy. Punxsutawney (pop. 6000) – “Punxy” as the locals call it – is located in western Pennsylvania, about 90 miles north of Pittsburgh. From New York, I drove 300 miles eastward through the Delaware Gap, by farmland and majestic forests and coal towns, sometimes along the frozen Susquehanna River. As hotels in town were fully booked, I stayed overnight in Brookville which meant starting the final 20-mile leg of the journey at 3 a.m. “You want to be there early”, said the receptionist. The Groundhog Day ceremony on Gobbler’s Knob, takes place when the sun goes up. That’s 7.20 a.m.
So, along with other hotel guests you drive over to “Punxy”, park your car in the Aldi parking lot and get into one of the school buses waiting to the Knob where partying is on since 3 a.m. The bus is full, the live-broadcast of local station WPXZ is on, a group of feisty middle-aged women yoo-hooing. They all don hats with ears and wear groundhog-themed face masks. We are the only ones wearing masks in the bus which is totally fine because COVID is no issue here. A check on the website of the organizers came up with “your search for ‘pandemic’ did not return any documents”. I ask the women whether they were locals and they say: “No, we are from Massachusetts”. Not the only out-of-staters, as it turned out. A women’s book club from Texas was among the first arrivals and at one point a man from France is asked to greet the crowd.
When we arrive on the Knob at 4 a.m. at least one thousand people are standing in front of the stage where the show is in full swing. A bunch of showgirls performs dance routines, two MCs, “Thunder Conductor” and “Moonshine” from the organizing “inner circle”, keep it going. The Juvenile Characteristics, a local band of teachers (they have to go to work after the event), play a song praising the town’s advantages before Las Vegas and Hollywood: “Punxy makes me drunk and it is close”.
They are kidding. What we have here is “good hometown fun”, as the website announces. There is no alcohol on Gobbler’s Knob, and BYO is also out. Rules of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. The mandate is completely observed. I see nobody drinking, and also nobody smoking, neither tobacco nor anything else. Two puny concessions booths sell water, coffee and hot chocolate, 2 bucks the cup. No “food court”, no bar, no mess: The club knows how to keep the operation lean.
The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was established in 1887, one year after the town had its first rodent-related weather prediction. It is an apparently all-male outfit of about two dozen “local dignitaries” who as the “inner circle” organize the annual event and over the rest of the year are in the care of Phil, the “seer of all seers” and “weather predictor extraordinaire” who is kept in quarters in town. Club members have titles and special names like fraternity boys. President Jeff Lundy is “Fair Weatherman”. Vice President Tom Dunkel is “Shingle Shaker”. “His Handler” A.J. Dereume is “Rainmaker”. There are “Iceman”, “Downpour” or “Daybreaker”, and one guy firms as “O-Zone”. It is said that the event goes back to a German custom on the Catholic holiday of Candlemas (40 days after Christmas, hence 2 February) whereby at noontime a badger was examined for casting a shadow or not. If there was a shadow, there would be more winter weather, if not, winter would go away. According to journalistic in-depth research on google.com, the German saying went „Wenn der Dachs zu Maria Lichtmeßen, mittags zwischen 11 und 12 Uhr seinen Schatten sieht, so muß er noch vier Wochen in seinem Baue bleiben.” If on Candlemas between 11 and 12 a.m. the badger sees its shadow, it must stay four more weeks in its burrow.
Maybe. At any rate, German immigrants introduced the custom to Punxsutawney (founded in 1818). On the way across the Atlantic the humane custom grew quite harsher. Noontime was moved to sunup, the badger exchanged for a groundhog and the prognostication extended from four to six weeks. In 1886, the first pilgrimage to Gobbler’s Knob took place and one year later the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was established. Clearly, the whole thing happens in what the French call the “second degré”, an occasion to mock, relativize and satirize life’s unpleasantries, in our case frost and cold. It would not at all be surprising if the Germans who started it hailed from areas where Karneval is a second religion.
Before the main act you need to kill almost four hours standing in the cold (there is no seating anywhere). While the place is filling up more and more, I strike up a conversation with a young man dressed like the Club officials. He gives his name as “Wootan” and claims to represent a “Secret Order of the Butterfly”, archenemy of the Groundhog Club with its own ritual involving unspeakable acts between a Monarch butterfly and a Spanish Fly, predicting either “no Hanukka or two Kwanzaas”. While more and more people fill up the premises, Thunder Conductor and Moonshine are dancing their lungs out on the stage, keeping the crowd entertained. Ever so often Moonshine yells “how cold is it?” and the crowd hollers back: “Lordy, Lordy it’s almost forty”. To be precise, it is in the mid-twenties and feels lower when the wind picks up. At 5.15 a.m., a real-life wedding takes place. Nathan and Tyra exchange vows, the Club President pronounces them “without a shadow of a doubt man and wife”. A band contest brings us to 6 a.m., then the “Juvenile Characteristics” come back with a “Wake up Phil” song, followed by the inevitable salute to the Armed Forces and the Star Spangled Banner. At 6:30 fireworks explode right over our heads, very close, much closer than the 4th of July monstrosities.
At 7:15 the “inner circle” marches on stage, all dressed in black frocks and top hats. They are introduced, first 95 year old Rusty Johnson, a veteran of 49 years. The President declares us “the largest midweek crowd in history”, and he quotes from Woodstock: “You show the world that 10 000 or more people can come together at 3 a.m. and have fun and music and nothing but fun and music.”
Finally it is 7:20, the sun is up. The men are gathered around a large wooden stump with a door at the bottom. That’s where Phil is waiting his turn. His Handler Handler opens the door and lifts the animal up, high over his head for all to see. Amazingly, the rodent does not wiggle or in any other way try to get away. Next His Handler puts him on the stump for the sanctissimum of the rite. The men bend over it. Phil is to indicate a preference for one of two “prediction scrolls” laying next to him. After a short moment the President declares: “We have a prediction”. Tom “Shingle Shaker” unfolds the chosen scroll and starts to read. “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye, Punxsatawny Phil, the seer of seers, the prognosticator of all prognosticators…..”. And so on. “With the shadow I have cast” the prognosis is for sic more winter weeks. The crowd chants “six more weeks, six more weeks”.
Just for the record: I have not seen one MAGA hat in the crowd.
After this, you invited to take your picture with the rodent. Phil now is in a transparent plastic cylinder. He gets a bit antsy, tries to crawl out and speeds in a circle like an uncontrolled toy car.
It must be said that God did not have his best day when he made the groundhog. It is, like the human, not among his finest creatures. Ratlike, and a pest. In the queue waiting for the bus back to the Aldi parking lot we have a little chat.
Woman from Fayetteville/NC: We went to Phil’s burrow yesterday. We didn’t see him, but he has a wife, Phyllis.
Me: So, succession is guaranteed.
Woman from Fayetteville: I wonder how old a groundhog can become.
Local farmer: Not very old on my land, I can tell you.
Man from Newcastle PA: I spoke to a guy from the club. He said they cannot keep Phil out for too long because he will get really irritated.
Man from Columbus OH: I’m sure they had many Phils over those 136 years.
Me: Maybe they have several right now, working in shifts and taking turns.
Man from Newcastle: Farmers don’t like groundhogs because they make large holes in the ground, and cows who step in them break a leg. Farmers shoot the groundhogs.
Me: Does anybody know – are they edible?
Man from Columbus OH: I’m not sure. People eat squirrels and possums but I never heard of anybody eating groundhog.
On the ride back, I am the only one wearing a mask in the bus. When I leave it, I am sent off with one or two mask comments. A man yells say hi to Sarah. Whatever that means.