Today is Groundhog Day in the United States. It is just the sort of enjoyable, silly and eccentric tradition you would expect to find in a British private school two hundred years ago. Maybe that’s why we love it so much!
It is always celebrated on 2nd February (or February 2nd, as our American friends would say), in towns across the state of Pennsylvania, the largest celebration being held in the otherwise unremarkable town of Punxsutawney, with crowds of up to 40,000. The celebrations do also occur in a few other parts of North America: Texas, Ohio and Nova Scotia.
According to folklore, if it is cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring will come early; if it is sunny, the groundhog will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will persist for six more weeks. However, if it is sunny and the groundhog does not retreat, I am not sure what happens next!?
Of course the actual reason for the festival is to create an opportunity for a grand feast and a coming together of people to celebrate the outgoing winter and the forthcoming spring. In Southeastern Pennsylvania there are even Groundhog Lodges that celebrate Fersommling, a Dutch origin festival filled with food, speeches and plays. Even today the festival is conducted in Pennsylvanian German, with fines to be paid by those who speak in English. The Groundhog festival may have its origins in Scottish folklore, but the earliest known reference to it was in 1841 in Morgantown, Pennsylvania.
The main reason that the rest of the world knows of this festival is the quirky and hilarious 1993 movie Groundhog Day, written by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray, who plays a reluctant, bitter and sarcastic news reporter sent to Punxsutawney to cover the festival. He ends up in a kind of psychedelic loop in which he has to repeat Groundhog Day over and over until he breaks the cycle by wooing the love of his life, his boss. At its heart it is a romantic comedy, and about the journey of a selfish man turning into a gentleman.
Although festival organisers have claimed his accuracy is as high as 90%, since records began in 1887, the groundhog’s weather predictions have been accurate only 39% of the time, meaning that he is wrong more often than not. However, the reliability of the groundhog as a weather forecaster is not the point of the festival, it is about the joy of gathering together to celebrate. And after a long cold winter, what better reason to drink, eat, sing and dance!