DSC00179Yesterday, I heard someone lamenting Groundhog Day because the groundhog always sees his shadow on account of all the camera flashes.

I’m a native of Pennsylvania, and as one who has been to the Gobbler’s Knob celebration, I’m here to set the record straight.

First thing’s first, let’s call him by his name, shall we? The groundhog is known as Phil, or Punxsutawney Phil, if you want to get technical. He’s named after the town in Pennsylvania where the ceremony takes place.

German ancestry runs high in Pennsylvania, and it is a German superstition that started this whole thing. Legend says that if a hibernating animal emerges on February 2nd (the Christian holiday of Candlemas), and leaves its burrow, we’ll have an early spring. If, on the other hand, the animal emerges and is frightened and retreats back into the burrow, we’ll have another six weeks of winter. The telling factor, the thing that scares the animal, is its shadow–which has everything to do with a cloudy or clear sky, not camera flashes.

Now, the weather forecast is certainly predicted ahead of time, and everyone knows whether it’s supposed to be cloudy or clear at dawn on February 2, but what’s the fun in that?

The “seeing of the shadow” celebration takes place up on the hill above Punxsutawney known as Gobbler’s Knob, in front of a crowd of hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of all ages who gathered from far and wide throughout the wintry night and either sat on the frozen muddy ground or simply stood for hours in the dark, waiting and anticipating.

All night long there is much pomp and circumstance with the revelry of the Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle. These men are dressed to the nines and wearing top hats, looking like they should be at an Inaugural Ball rather than the edge of the woods above a quaint blue-collar town in the middle of the night. There is singing, dancing, music, and cheering, and rumor has it that actor Bill Murray has been known to show up in the crowd to take part in the festivities. (If you don’t know the movie Groundhog Day, please, please, go watch it. It’s a brilliant commentary on how to find happiness in life.)

Camera flashes are the least of Punxsy Phil’s worries as, close to dawn, they turn on giant floodlights to illuminate the crowd-filled clearing of Gobbler’s Knob. At the break of dawn, the crowd gets silent as the Inner Circle knock ceremoniously on Phil’s burrow, and reach in to draw him out (wearing massive, claw-resistant gloves). And the crowd goes wild. It takes a good half hour to even figure out the winter-spring verdict.

Pennsylvanians have been doing this since 1887, though there aren’t written records going back that far. Phil has now officially seen his shadow 100 times, and hasn’t seen it only 17 times, as yesterday was a shadow day, yet again. Another six weeks of winter is in store for us.

But to draw people out of their warm beds into the chilly hills of Pennsylvania in February to wait in the elements all night, I tell you, that Phil is one magical groundhog. The celebration of Phil’s shadow is not only steeped in tradition, but is decorated with smiling faces, young and old, who gathered in a clearing for a chance at hearing those glorious words, “Early spring!” But while we always hope for spring, after this outdoor night, we know we can handle the winter.

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My book, Upside Down Kingdom, is available on Amazon.

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