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Ruth Bass: The day a garden-wrecking groundhog from Punxatawney, Pa., turns meteorologist

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Club handler A.J. Dereume holds Punxsutawney Phil, the weather prognosticating groundhog, during the 136th celebration of Groundhog Day last Feb. 2 on Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa.

RICHMOND — In the movie sharing the holiday’s name, actor Bill Murray gave Groundhog Day its proper place in the world of absurdity.

Murray, gifted with the ability to make people laugh before he even opens his mouth, plays a cynical, disgruntled journalist assigned year after year to cover Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pa. His nightmare, a penance for attitude perhaps, is waking up each morning to find that Groundhog Day is starting all over again — and again. It’s worth watching.

In the real world, the small community of Punxsutawney annually carves out more than its share of media space because a bunch of guys in 19th century top hats haul out their live groundhog on Feb. 2 and proclaim that if he doesn’t see his shadow, winter is kaput, spring is on. If he sees his shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of snow, sleet, ice. One has to wonder how they keep the furry creature so handy — is he confined or wild, trained to come when called?

As a practical matter, Phil’s prediction is pretty good news for the Berkshires, except for our ski areas. We would embrace the instant slowing of winter, knowing it won’t go away overnight; but six more weeks in an area where it snows sometimes in April and May? Well, that’s not bad either.

The groundhog story is meteorological nonsense, obviously. But it’s fun, putting Punxsutawney on the map since 1887, a remarkable public relations achievement for a rodent long despised for its ability to eat a row of green beans in a night.

Commonly known as a woodchuck around here, the medium-brown creature is often seen at the side of the highway munching on grass. It can move quite quickly and is clever enough to have more than one exit from his burrow, thwarting ordinary attempts to get rid of him.

In Pennsylvania, Phil’s emergence from his burrow on Gobbler’s Knob launches several days of events from lunches to contests to formal balls that would appear to be a major source of revenue in his Pennsylvania town. His weather-predicting prowess, however, stands at about 50 percent.

The Punxsutawney Elks Lodge of the 1880s originally focused on Phil’s ancestors as game pursued in late summer and served as the main course at the lodge on a particular day each year. Newspaper editor Clymer Freas fathered the idea of a February Groundhog Day by reporting in 1886 that the groundhog had not seen its shadow. The following year, a group trekked to Gobbler’s Knob to consult the rodent, and a tourist attraction was born.

The Feb. 2 date was no accident. It’s the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and has been significant to both ancient and modern traditions. The Celts celebrated it as the start of spring, and the day evolved into the Christian observance of Candlemas when a day of sun supposedly meant another 40 of cold and snow.

Germans added to the myth by making rules about whether the day was sunny and decreeing that badgers and other small animals had to see their shadows. That regulation probably squelched arguments about cloud cover and enough blue sky for a Dutchman’s breeches.

Why Punxsutawney? Like various words and birds and traditions that made their way from Europe to the United States, when Germans emigrated to Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, they carried the Candlemas tradition with them, replacing the badger with the local groundhog.

Today, like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, Punxsutawney Phil is embedded in our culture. The red-suited guy who scales chimneys and the weather-forecasting woodchuck are commercial stars. But the tooth gatherer is only a benefit for kids with a new gap in their mouths.

Like Bill Murray’s problem in “Ground Hog Day,” they’ll all appear again and again and again.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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