Wednesday, August 7, 2013

groundhog day used to mean something in this town

Phil only tells us a few things about Groundhog Day, the holiday. In the opening scene, he tells us the basic bits: “According to the legend, tomorrow, February 2, if the groundhog sees his shadow, we'll have six more weeks of winter.” Later, Phil also tells us—though it’s hard to judge just how serious he is—that the townspeople used to “take the hog out and they used to eat it” (more on that below).

Punxsutawney Phil, the “prognosticator of prognosticators” can predict an early spring, supposedly. However, the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tells us that Punxsutawney Phil is actually wrong more often than he’s right. The Stormfax Almanac puts his accuracy at 39%. But, all this begs the question: why do we think a groundhog can predict the weather (or at least, why do we say as much)?

Groundhog Day can be traced back to a few different things: Imbolc, Candlemas, and a group of hunters who actually did eat the groundhog.

Imbolc, commonly celebrated January 31 or February 1, is a Gaelic festival halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It gets its name from i mbolg which means “in the belly” (linking it to ewe’s lambing season). Lisa Michael suggests in Nature’s Success System that Imbolc is “a time for allowing yourself to be fertile with ideas.” The festival was also linked to weather divination and the Catholicized Gaelic goddess, (Saint) Brighid. This connection makes Imbolc a particularly feminine holiday in Wicca.

German settlers brought Candlemas with them to America. Superstition said that fair weather on Candlemas (February 2) mean winter was going to keep going—not sure how that works out logically, but maybe it’s true (more on that below)—and this bit became the groundhog’s job to measure here, particularly in Punxsutawney, where the immortal Punxsutawney Phil comes out every year and announces in Groundhogese whether or not he has seen his shadow… These details about Phil are, of course, 100% true according to The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s FAQ: Phil is immortal (much like Phil Connors, I suppose); he is the only weather forecasting groundhog so don’t go listening to, say, Wiarton Willie if you happen to be up in Ontario on February 2; he makes his announcement at that moment in Groundhogese and the forecast is not made by the Inner Circle ahead of time (don’t let yourself be confused by the scroll that Buster reads that seems to already have the forecast on it); and the first trek to Gobbler’s Knob (where he lives the rest of the year; he does not live in the local library, enjoying ice cream and dog food because that would be silly) to hear from Phil was in 1887 (or possibly 1886, depending on the source).

That is the year that Clymer H. Freas, city editor of the Punxsutawney Spirt, was inspired by “local hunters and gourmets who held a groundhog hunt followed by a picnic barbecue.” Yes, they did eat the groundhog. Phil Connors may sound like he’s making it up, but he isn’t. The NOAA NCDC report says:

Freas thought it so much fun that he wrote up the group as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club and went on to promote the Punxsutawney Groundhog as the official weather forecaster. As he embellished the story year after year, other newspapers picked it up and soon everyone looked to Punxsutawney Phil for the critical prediction of when spring would return to the nation.

Now then, what about the groundhog’s ability to predict the weather?

The Canadian Encyclopedia tells us, “There is some truth to the shadow aspect of the legend. Sunny days in winter are generally associated with colder, drier arctic air and cloudy days with milder, moist maritime air.” As a saying related to Candlemas says:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

Does science concur? Picture me shrugging. Keep in mind, as geeksaresexy points out, the coming of an early spring “can’t be objectively measured as spring is defined by date rather than weather.” If we could simply decide that Punxsutawney Phil is always right, then all we’d need to do is label the season accordingly, screw the actual temperature.

Accordingly, if we want to have Phil Connors always be right, we could stop labeling spring, summer, or fall, and then winter would, indeed, last for the rest of our lives. That would ruin things for the Stark family, I suppose, but that’s a matter for another discussion.

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to figure out what an atheist like me has to do to get sainted. I mean, if Brighid can have a cult powerful enough that the Roman Catholic Church had to include her, there’s hope for all of us… well, if we can manage to have a significant cult following.

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