Deep in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the German roots run deep and certain traditions have carried on and evolved from the old country, their origins long forgotten. I remember one year as a kid, at school we made little paper cutouts of a groundhog and taped them onto popsicle sticks, then took them outside to see if they would see their shadows. It seemed silly even then, and I didn’t understand where the tradition came from. Yesterday, Dylan and I visited that tiny town on the only day that anyone knows its name, and we saw the rodent that gave it fame.
Punxsutawny, PA is a small town, much like Shippensburg in size and population, except that Punxsutawny has a very special—and very famous—furry resident. His name is Phil. Now, sure, lots of town have residents named Phil, and I’m sure some are a bit hairy too, but this one is special. Why? Well, other than being 130 years old (according to his handlers), this 22-inch long, 20-pound groundhog is a world famous weather forecaster.
The tradition started back in Germany on what was called “Candlemas Day,” which was the midpoint of winter. At the time, they looked to the European hedgehog and concluded that were he to see his shadow, it meant there was to be a “second winter.” When the Germans traveled to America, the groundhog greatly resembled the hedgehog, and so the tradition continued.
When planning out my vacation time for the year, I had a couple days left over. That’s when Dylan said, “How would you like to see the poor groundhog ripped outta his home?” So off we went, to join thousands of other people at Gobbler’s Knob to see poor little Phil get woken up and brought out into the cold morning air so he could make his prediction and tell it to the Groundhog Club President in Groundhogese. (Early spring this year! Or so he says. Watch it here!)
I have to say, I’m very impressed with how organized the town was to deal with the huge influx of people for the event. There were three different designated parking areas, and school buses then running shuttles to Gobbler’s Knob. For $5 they would take you there, then after the prediction, they would take you back to where you parked or to the drop off in town, where there were woodcarvers, metalworkers, craft fairs, food, and anything else you could think of. The State cops helped direct the traffic, count off bus passengers so there was no confusion, and really helped keep things organized and flowing smoothly. Huge kudos and thanks to them for their hard work!
When Dylan and I got to town, we got one of the little chainsaw-carved wooden busts of Phil in a top hat, a fridge magnet, and a Christmas tree ornament. Dylan also got a little silly and got a couple groundhog key chains and put them on his hat. Wander around their town in any direction and you’ll run into a number of colorfully painted groundhog statues, all different. There was also a really cool clock out front of the bank in the shape of a tree. It has little doors on it like a cuckoo clock, that I would guess has a groundhog come out on the hour (we missed it by about 2min, so I couldn’t say for sure).
Between the silliness of it, the huge fireworks display just before dawn, and the nearness to Pennsylvania’s elk habitat, it was such a fun little trip. Nancy had said that there are people who go up every year and she never understood why, but now I do. The childish fun of it all makes it completely worth getting up at 3am to stand in the freezing morning air for four hours. We can’t wait to go again next year.
Next time though….wool socks and insulated boots!
(Want to know more about Punxsy Phil? Check out his page at http://www.groundhog.org/!)