Quod Erat Demonstrandum, Rodent?

By Morgan Flottmeier, PAW Writer

On February 2nd, 2015, thousands of people gathered at Gobbler’s Knob, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to watch Phil, the resident groundhog, search for his shadow and decide whether the United States will have an early spring or suffer six more weeks of winter.

groundhog-clipart             According to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, “Punxsutawney Phil, the Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of All Prognosticators waved to his fans, gazed at the sky and around his stump and with the help of the Inner Circle, looked for his shadow. Majestically…speaking in Groundhogese, he directed President Bill Deeley to the precise scroll which reads: forecasts abound on the Internet, but I, Punxsutawney Phil, am still your best bet, yes, a shadow I see, you can start to Twitter, hash tag: Six More Weeks of Winter!” No, you did not read that incorrectly. Thousands of people at the ceremony, and perhaps thousands more at home, have put their meteorological faith into an oversized rodent who speaks Groundhogese and uses his shadow to determine the weather.

The tradition, however, doesn’t just end with Phil. All across America, different groundhogs, or if you prefer, woodchucks, are dragged out of hibernation so that they can foretell the coming of spring. Some of these more popular clairvoyant rodents include Chuck from New York, Jimmy from Wisconsin, and General Beauregard Lee from Georgia.

This strange custom has its origins in an ancient Christian celebration called Candlemas, where the clergy would bless and distribute candles that were needed for winter. If Candlemas day was sunny, then winter was sure to be longer. If the day was cloudy, spring was destined to come early. Later, the Germans concluded that if Candlemas Day was bright and caused a hedgehog to see its shadow, the animal would be wise enough to know that winter would continue and thus, go back into hibernation. So, when Germans immigrated to the United States, they simply traded hedgehogs for American groundhogs. Hence, in 1886, the Punxsutawney newspaper noted the first Groundhog Day in America, and the tradition has carried on and grown in popularity ever since.

So exactly how accurate is ol’ Phil? According to the National Climatic Data Center, the actual weather in recent years, “Shows no predictive skill for the groundhog.” Further, winter always ends at exactly the same time, independent of Phil’s prophecies. Winter, as a season, lasts from the solstice in December until the vernal or spring equinox in March.

In addition to inaccuracy, Groundhog Day celebrations are full of trouble. In 2009, the Staten Island groundhog, Chuck, bit Mayor Bloomberg. Then, in 2014, the same groundhog died of internal injuries after Mayor de Blasio dropped the poor thing. Finally, this year, the mayor of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin suffered a nip from their groundhog, Jimmy.

Groundhog Day is one of America’s oldest and oddest traditions. The predictions from the supposedly prescient animal are erroneous and wildly unreliable.  If that isn’t bad enough, some participants wound up with injuries, and one unlucky groundhog even gave its’ life to carry on this holiday. Arguably, the nation’s time and efforts have been wasted. Perhaps it’s time for America to leave the groundhogs to hibernate in peace.