Here’s to the North American ground squirrel prognosticator

Lorri Drumm

Today marks a long-standing tradition where crowds of people have been gathering since 1886 to witness the “Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary” — Punxsutawney Phil — take center stage and predict the future, at least in terms of weather.

That’s a long time, a lot of attention and a snazzy title for an animal considered basically a giant North American ground squirrel that reportedly has a 47-percent accuracy rate for weather prediction.

The sheer magnitude of the annual event leaves one (one reporter, anyway) wondering: how they do it, why they do it, do places other than Punxsutawney do it, is a groundhog somehow superior to other animals and the biggest question — is it really possible for a notorious garden wrecker with a tendency to become roadkill to be considered a “beloved celebrity?”

How did Groundhog Day come to be?

The Christian religious holiday of Candlemas Day is commonly associated with the current celebration, but it’s roots are older than that. The celebration started in Christianity as the day, (Feb. 2), when Christians would take their candles to the church to have them blessed. They believed this would bring blessings to their household for the remaining winter.

As the years passed the tradition evolved. An English folk song played a role in the changing festivities:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,

Come, Winter, have another flight;

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,

Go Winter, and come not again.

There is no mention of an animal of any kind in the song. As the tradition caught on in Germany, an animal burrowed onto the scene.

According to German lore, if the hedgehog saw his shadow on Candlemas Day there would be a “Second Winter” or six more weeks of bad weather. German settlers brought their customs to our country but they neglected to bring their hedgehogs. A similar hibernating animal was chosen.

Just a little more of the history lesson: In Punxsutawney, 1886 marked the first time that Groundhog Day appeared in the local newspaper. The following year brought the first official pilgrimage to Gobbler’s Knob.

So that seems to take care of why they do it. If you want the details of how they do it, you should probably talk to members of the Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle, the group responsible for continuing the festivities and caring for Phil.

This reporter didn’t get the opportunity to speak with any of the top-hat wearing Phil-lovers, but it’s said they claim that they and their ancestor group members have cared for just one Phil. If you do the math, that makes Phil at least 133 years old, and that’s assuming he was born in 1886.

A quick internet search revealed a groundhog’s typical life span. A “normal” groundhog lives about 6 to 8 years. According to an article in Time Magazine, Groundhog Punch once served to those attending the celebration, has become an “elixir of life” that keeps Phil young.

But keeping Phil young didn’t seem to be the goal of those early gatherings, according to the article. On Feb. 2, 1887, Punxsutawney Phil was the main course.

Phil has come a long way since being a menu item, but are his weather skills half-baked? Some people are adamantly opposed to giving him props for prognosticating.

When asked how a municipality in a neighboring county prepares for winter maintenance a township official replied, “Screw the groundhog.”

“Blame the groundhog,” was the sentiment expressed by a meteorologist with the National Weather Service who was taking his fair share of lumps for the recent effects of a Polar Vortex.

For those who want their wardrobe to reflect their distaste for Phil, a quick internet search resulted in quite fashionable T-shirts that proclaim #notmygroundhog.

In Phil’s defense, he’s not the only groundhog out there trying to please everyone who wants to pack up the shovels and boots. There’s also Chattanooga Chuck, French Creek Freddie, Buckeye Chuck, Essex Ed, Jimmy the Groundhog and probably lots more.

From about 2004 to 2014, Crawford County relied on Cochranton Carl for their local version of the occasion.

Last but not least, there’s a completely unverified story about Wally the Warren Wallaby. What is known is that on July 5, 1816 ice formed on the Allegheny River in what is known as the “year without a summer.” Wally may have called it in a February forecast. Not a member of a species native to Warren, Wally might have been visiting with a circus.

At least there are no stories of Wally ever being on a local menu.

Lorri Drumm is new to both Warren and its newspaper. Following a stint as a reporter in Crawford County, she moved here with dreams of writing stories and spending time soaking up all the area has to offer. Drumm’s resume includes a 10-week internship at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and an almost fellowship at Marquette University.