It may seem strange that America, a nation built on its dynamism and industry, has chosen one of the few animals that truly hibernates as the emblematic and beloved centrepiece of a national event, Groundhog Day.
The groundhog, a member of the marmot family, is a mammalian rodent found from Canada and north-east America down to Georgia, and west into the plains.
It loves to dig, but in winter shuts down completely. Its February 2 awakening is supposed to forecast the pre-spring weather; if it is sunny the groundhog sees its shadow and decides to prolong his nap; winter will continue another six weeks. If it is cloudy and there is no shadow, then spring will arrive early, before the vernal equinox.
With its origins in ancient European weather lore, in which a badger or sacred bear figured, it began to be practiced as a Pennsylvania German holiday custom in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Groundhog Day finally became a national event in 1887 when the enterprising editor of one Pennsylvania newspaper, Clymer H. Freas, used his “Punxsutawney Spirit” to market the event and claim America’s flagship ceremony for the town, held at the charmingly- named Gobbler’s Knob.
The tradition also fits pagan and religious calendars; this from an an English poem:
“If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again”.
Today the Punxsutawney celebration remains America’s largest, where the resident groundhog is known as Phil. Some 40,000 people turn out here every year to see him emerge, have a scratch, and sniff the air.
Phil has a host of competitor forecasters far and wide with names like Chesapeake Chuck, French Creek Freddie, General Beauregard Lee, and Nibbles. A ceremony at the University of Dallas in Irvine, Texas, claims to be the second-biggest.
Lousiana’s sub-tropical climate has meant the use of interlopers like T-Boy the Nutria in New Orleans, a coypu, and another, Pierre C. Shadeaux, in New Iberia, who breaks the rules and forecasts a longer spring or earlier summer. What they all think of Red Rock Canyon in Nevada’s attempting to muscle in on the market with desert tortoise Mojave Max is unknown.
Shreveport goes one better and tries to queer everyone’s pitch by choosing February 1 for Claude the Cajun Crawfish to make his forecast for the Mardi Gras carnival season.
One grim fact about the little critters is that a percentage of the woodchuck population is infected with the woodchuck hepatitis virus, very similar to the human hepatitis b. This makes the woodchuck the best available animal for the study of viral hepatitis in humans, and so it is used in animal research in preference to endangered chimpanzees.
Finally no article about Groundhog day would be complete without some reference to the peerless Bill Murray movie of the same name.