Let’s start a new tradition


It was only a few days ago that everyone's favorite weatherman, Punxsutawney Phil, made his yearly appearance. This year he did not see his shadow and supposedly predicted an early Spring. This led me to question why do we trust a gopher to predict the weather, and where did this tradition start? I invite you to join me on a brief journey through the history of Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day was started by the Pennsylvania Dutch, who were German-speaking Immigrants from Europe. The Germans had a tradition of marking Candlemas (February 2) as “Badger Day”. On this day, if a badger emerging from its den encountered a sunny day, which would result in casting a shadow, it heralded four more weeks of winter.

The Pennsylvanians continued the same tradition as their German predecessors on the same day. The big differences were that winter would be prolonged from four weeks to six weeks, and the animal would be changed from the badger to the groundhog.

The first observance of Groundhog Day in the United States occurred in the German communities of Pennsylvania on February 2, 1840, according to journal entries and other historical records. The first news report of a Groundhog Day observance was arguably made by the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper in 1886.

It was not until the following year, in 1887, that the first Groundhog Day considered “official” was commemorated in Punxsutawney. Clymer Freas, Editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit, is credited as the “father” who conceived the idea of Groundhog Day. It is also suggested that Punxsutawney was where all of the Groundhog Day events originated, from there it would spread to other parts of the US and Canada.

In the 1880s the Ground Hog Day celebrations were carried out by the Punxsutawney Elks Lodge. The members of the lodge would be the catalyst to start what would become the Groundhog Club, which continued the Groundhog Day tradition. The lodge didn’t host their events as a party and celebration as we think of it today, they viewed the groundhog as a game animal and hunted it for food. They were serving groundhog at the lodge and organizing a hunting party to take place once a year in late summer.

In 1889, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club was formed and continued to the hunt and feast, which then took place annually in September. Over time the hunt and feast did not continue to attract enough attention and the practice was discontinued.

The great meteorologist we know today, Phil, wasn’t given his moniker until 1961. Many think this name was chosen as an indirect reference to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Today, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Day celebration is the largest held. Crowds as large as 40,000 gather each year, which is nearly eight times the normal population of the town. The celebration used to draw only 2,000 or so, but in 1993, Bill Murray’s movie Groundhog Day came out and attendance has grown ever since.

The official “Phil” is pretended to be a “supercentenarian”, having been the same forecasting animal since 1887. I guess if you can believe he can predict the weather why not believe he’s also 138 years old?

This year during the 138th prognostication, Phil did not see his shadow. This marks only the 20th occasion that this has happened in the recorded history of the event. To date, Phil has been accurate only 39 percent of the time.

Seeing all of this history has inspired me. We as Southerners should start our own tradition. Let’s find a Nutria Rat and name him Atchafalaya Al. Every winter we can hold a celebration similar to Punxsutawney’s. We’ll have to work out all of the details, but maybe Al can do something like predict when the price of Crawfish will drop each year. Just a thought!