The Appeal of Groundhog Day
During the early hours of Feb. 2 at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, PA, a crowd hears the sounds of the "Pennsylvania Polka" through a PA system. Shivering, dancing and screaming to fend off the chill, they know what comes next: the appearance.
The crowd stands in the cold for hours to see Punxsutawney Phil, the star of Groundhog Day. If Phil, aroused from his mid-winter slumber, emerges from his burrow and sees his shadow, there will be 6 more weeks of winter. If not, his fans and followers can expect an early spring.
Groundhog Day, deemed “America’s Second-Favorite Holiday” by Pennsylvania’s Department of Tourism, takes place in Punxsutawney located about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The town’s population is 6,700, but during the event, this number triples. The crowd has reached 40,000 during years when the holiday has landed on a weekend. The event now attracts many travelers and members of the global media.
Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers brought Groundhog Day to America in the early 1900s through the legend of Candlemas, which says, “For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day, so far will the snow swirl in May ...” In Europe, Candlemas was associated with weather-prediction lore involving a badger. But German immigrants found the badger scarce in the hills of western Pennsylvania and instead used a groundhog.
Groundhog Day has been celebrated in Punxsutawney — also known as “Punxsy” —since the mid- to late-1800s. The first official trek to Gobbler’s Knob was made in 1887.
Groundhog Day was a mostly modest and regional event until 1993, when the film Groundhog Day was released. People from around the world then began traveling to the town to witness the event for themselves.
“It was a combination of the movie and just more people talking about it,” said Bill Deeley to the Erie Times-News in 2010. Deeley is the president of the Inner Circle, a group of men who promote and perpetuate the groundhog legend. “It was like a mini-Woodstock, with bigger and bigger crowds that we couldn't accommodate. We made some changes about 6 years ago that have really worked out well.”
The town expanded the parking area and uses school buses to transport fans to the Knob. Students in the area have no school on Groundhog Day. Organizers also created a family-only section near the Gobbler's Knob stage.
Groundhog Day draws fans from around the world, from road-tripping, party-ready college students to families. Jeff Hansen of Watsonville, CA, has been attending Groundhog Day for the last 11 years.
“I had twin brothers that were born on Feb 3, and I used to call them little groundhogs,” he said. “Punxsutawney always made the news in my hometown, and I liked the silliness of the whole deal, and it was an event I always wanted to attend.”
Hansen became so enamored by Punxsy that he has bought a house there. “I found it to be a nice balance from the beach,” he said.
What to See and Do in Punxsy
Visitors can purchase souvenirs and groundhog crafts, and they can also enjoy ice-carving, arts shows, scavenger hunts, carriage rides, hay rides, dances, walking tours, a chili cook-off, magicians, jugglers and comedians.
During Groundhog Day festivities, a boy and a girl from local kindergarten classes are crowned “Lil’ Mister and Miss Groundhog.” Seniors from the local high school are crowned the “Groundhog King and Queen,” and foreign-exchange students from regional schools are invited as special guests. Also, the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center welcomes new inductees to its “Meteorologist Hall of Fame,” established in 2007.
Visitors with a Feb. 2 birthday are invited to attend “Phil’s Birthday Celebration.” Those wanting to get married or to renew their vows can do so at “Phil’s Wedding Chapel,” where the town’s mayor officiates the ceremony and one or two members of the Inner Circle are witnesses.
Frugal or room-less guests can pay a few bucks to sleep in the town’s community center in their own sleeping bag anywhere they can find space. There’s also a late-night screening of the film Groundhog Day.
Punxsutawney Phil has had his share of travel and media exposure over the past 25 years. He met President Reagan in 1986, has appeared on Oprah, Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee and had his 2001 prognostication broadcast live on Times Square’s JumboTron.
In 2003, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell became the first sitting governor to attend Groundhog Day since 1909. He later formed his own Harrisburg chapter of the Groundhog Club. “It's a great tourism magnet for us.” Rendell said. “They come from all over the world.”
Media credential requests this year have come from in New York, Richmond, Detroit, Denver, Tampa, Denver and New Haven, as well as from outlets in the Ukraine, the Spanish New Agency EFE and Montreal.
The holiday has inspired the formation 58 Groundhog Day clubs, including the Five O'Clock Shadows of Columbia, SC and Punxsy Phil's Party Pretties, Political Pundits and Pontificating Old Poops of Annandale, VA. The Farmhouse Fables is based in East Sussex, England. The groups stage breakfasts, mixers, music, and live coverage of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney. A new chapter in Washington State this year will host a hospice fund-raiser with about 500 guests. There’s even a chapter formed by an American military unit in Tikrit, Iraq.
Groundhog Day has recently occurred around the time of the Super Bowl. This year, the Pittsburgh Steelers will play in the game 4 days after Groundhog Day.
The Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII in 2009 the evening before Groundhog Day. When Phil emerged from his stump he was carrying the Steelers' iconic battle flag, the "Terrible Towel."
The Inner Circle maintains that Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions are 100% accurate, but the claim has been debated. Former Inner Circle President Bill Cooper says overzealous meteorologists, columnists and naysayers who argue about Punxsutawney Phil’s accuracy are missing the point.
“There are many serious and important things in life,” said Johnston. “And Groundhog Day is not one of them.”
Tom Chapin is the editor of The Punxsutawney Spirit.