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Phil Said What?!

Of course, you’re wondering about the history behind Groundhog Day, and we’re happy to oblige.

 

Across the country various rodent prognosticators arise from their burrows on February 2nd to declare the forecast: an early Spring? Or six more weeks of unpleasant weather?



 

The most famous, of course, is also the first: Punxsutawney Phil.

So we’ll work backward from there.

 

Groundhogs – “woodchucks,” if you will – you know, the guys whom we’re wondering how as to how much wood they could chuck if they could indeed chuck wood—are large, burrowing rodents that can be found about anywhere in the hilly, wooded spaces. Around coastal Carolina? Not so much – the ground water is so high that they’d be living in underground swimming pools rather than burrows. They’re related to squirrels and are loaded down with nicknames, the most entertaining being “whistlepig.” They love helping themselves to gardens, which makes them less than loved by a lot of people with green thumbs and savaged lettuce rows.

 

Groundhog Day is celebrated in Canada and the US. Why a holiday for a bloated, stump-tailed rat? Well, it goes back to the 16th century when the Dutch noticed that, like nature’s toaster pastries, the woodchucks (and, more specifically in Europe, their ill-natured relatives the badgers) popped up around February every year to have a look around. The rumor began that, if the little fellow saw his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter; if he doesn’t, then there will be an early spring. So pray for clouds on February 2.

 

Pennsylvania was heavily settled by the Dutch, and they brought their tradition with them.

 

History.com states the first official groundhog day in the U.S. happened at Punxsutawney at Gobbler’s Knob in 1887. A newspaper editor named Clymer Freas (you spell everything weirdly when you’re in a town spelled Punxustawney) convinced a bunch of groundhog hunters to keep one alive and haul him out of a makeshift den. As noted above, Clymer was probably sitting in his newsroom and thinking, “Man, January and February are such dull, cold months. We need a holiday to break it up. Martin Luther King has been born yet, so let’s use a groundhog.”

 

They jumped at his idea and hauled him out – his first prediction was not appreciated – and one of America’s oddest traditions was born.

This tiny town (about 6,000 people) more than triples in size every February 2nd as the Inner Circle pulls a sleepy Phil out of his den and declares, in a Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, what Phil sees.

 

By tradition, it is the same Phil being hauled out in 2024 that was hauled out in 1887. He drinks magical punch, we’re told, that makes him nigh immortal (your basic groundhog is old in the tooth at nine and dead at 10 years).

 

But don’t put too much stock in our adorable marmot. Phil’s accuracy rate (again, according to History.com) is a miserly 50 percent. Staten Island has a more highly educated groundhog named Chuck whose accuracy is closer to 80 percent.

 

Friday in Punxsutawney is predicted to be in the 30s and cloudy, so you would think that would guarantee an early spring—but I suspect Phil goes more by the Farmer’s Almanac than the sun, since all those camera flashes would have him seeing his shadow every year otherwise.

 

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