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Ever wonder who came up with the idea for Groundhog Day? Is February so bleak and void of meaning, so lacking in things to celebrate or observe that when someone suggested having a Groundhog Day people said, “Sure, why not?”
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.
At some point – after about the 10th pint – one of the guys piped up and said, “Hey, how about we have a day dedicated to the groundhog or woodchuck?
Someone else in the company then put down their tankard and asked, “Did you say, ‘How about a day dedicated to the groundhog or woodchuck?’ Brilliant!”
All of this is conjecture, of course, because I’m not sure how Groundhog Day did develop and history books are a little vague about its origins. But somebody, somewhere had to be 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 the people in the small Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney make up for everyone else’s lack of enthusiasm. 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.
Punxsutawney is located at the site of an old Indian camping spot, strategically located between the Allegheny and Susquehanna rivers. The name comes from the Indian phrase “ponksad uteney” which means “place of the sand fleas.” (At least two questions come to mind: Why would Indians want to camp at the “place of the sand fleas” and why would people later conclude that it would be a good place to build a town?)
February 2 is located – more or less – between Winter Solstice and Spring Eqinox and since ancient times people in the Northern Hemisphere thought that should be observed in some way. 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.
The day is 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 can’t be much worse than the people we have predicting it today. Anyway, the Europeans looked for signs of spring from the badger, but here in America we prefer the groundhog so he was given the part.
Speaking of parts, 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 wisdom Hollywood is famous for – they decided to film the movie in Woodstock, Ill., which most everyone agreed looks NOTHING like a Pennsylvania town.
Here in Maine Groundhog Day passes without much mention. Any groundhog you see outside in Maine on Feb. 2 will probably be deader than a doornail and stiff as a board.
I’m not sure what kind of a prediction could be gleaned from that.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is mainestoryteller@yahoo.com.
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