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Phil see a shadow today?

Most of us know that today is Groundhog Day. But how many know the origins of this tradition whose origins are more than slightly clouded in the mists of ethnic and Native American cultures? Myths tie the present to the distant past when nature had a much greater influence our lives. As legend has it, today is the day the groundhog comes out of his hole after a long winter sleep to look for his shadow. If he sees it, he regards it as an omen of six more weeks of bad weather and returns to his hole. If, however, the day is cloudy and he fails see his shadow, he takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground.But let’s start at the beginning. In 1723, the Delaware Indians settled near what is now known as Punxsutawney, Pa., halfway between the Allegheny and the Susquehanna rivers, about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. According to the creation beliefs of the Delaware Indians, their forebears began life as animals on Mother Earth and then emerged centuries later to live as men, which is how the Delawares came to consider groundhogs, or “wojaks,” as their honorable ancestors. Concurrently, when the German settlers arrived in the New World, they brought with them a tradition known as Candlemas Day, when it was the custom of the clergy to bless candles and distribute them so a lighted candle could be placed in each window of the home during the dark days of winter. However, if the sun came out on Feb. 2 (the halfway point between winter and spring), the Europeans believed it meant six more weeks of wintry weather. This folklore made its way to Pennsylvania, where it was melded with the ancestral notions of the Delaware Indians.The early settlers found groundhogs in great abundance in many parts of Pennsylvania and determined that the groundhog, resembling the European hedgehog, was a most intelligent and sensible animal. Somehow that gave rise to the notion that if the sun appeared on Feb. 2, the venerable groundhog would see its shadow and scurry back into its underground home for another six weeks of winter. The earliest American reference to Groundhog Day can be found at the Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, which on Feb. 4, 1841, read: “Candlemas Day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”Pennsylvania’s official celebration of Groundhog Day began 45 years later on Feb. 2, 1886, with a proclamation in The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper: “Today is Groundhog Day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow.” That groundhog was given the name “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary,” (which is quoted word for word in the movie “Ground Hog Day,” starring Bill Murray as a TV weatherman, and Andie MacDowell as his bemused producer.) Since the 1993 release of the film “Groundhog Day,” attendance at the real event has expanded exponentially. In 1997, there were 35,000 visitors in Punxsutawney, which means about as many people came out to watch Phil scurry around at 7:30 in the morning as attended opening day for the Pittsburgh Pirates two and a half months later. When Columbia Pictures set out to recreate the Punxsutawney Groundhog Day, they took the matter down to the smallest detail. But because there were so few highways in and around Punxsutawney, the filmmakers decided upon the rolling flatlands of Woodstock, Ill., for production of the movie.The actual Gobbler’s Knob is a wooded hill, but Gobbler’s Knob in the movie was moved to the town square. However, the Punxsutawney Gobbler’s Knob was re-created to scale in the Woodstock’s town square based on detailed drawings and videos the crew (including Bill Murray) made on its visit to Punxsutawney. Groundhogs in the wild eat green plants, such as dandelion, clover and grass. But Punxsutawney Phil survives on a diet of dog food and ice cream. According to his handler, a local funeral director, Phil weighs 15 pounds and thrives in his climate-controlled home at the Punxsutawney Library. Up on Gobbler’s Knob, Phil is placed in a heated burrow beneath a simulated tree stump before being pulled out at 7:25 a.m. to make his prediction. Since the folks in Punxsutawney began keeping records, Phil has seen his shadow 92 times and failed to see his shadow on 15 occasions. There are no records for the other 13 years. (Author’s note: Perhaps the substitution of a hedgehog for a groundhog explains the inaccuracy of Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions in recent years.) So there you have it, which is probably more than anyone really needs to know about a rodent in Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, it is Groundhog Day, and here’s hoping that Phil saw a shadow so humongous it portends powder until the lifts close in April!Butch Mazzuca, a local Realtor and ski instructor, writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at bmazz68@earthlink.net


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