In the early morning hours Monday, thousands of people will converge upon a small town in Pennsylvania, awaiting an outcome nearly as momentus as the score of Super Bowl XLIII: Will Punxsutawney Phil see his shadow or not?
This is the 123rd celebration of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pa. According to Laura Shaffer, event coordinator for Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, the tradition began with German settlers in Pennsylvania. As explained on Groundhog.org, the official Web site of Groundhog Day, Germans would turn to hedgehogs for weather predictions on Feb. 2, Candlemas Day, when clergymen would bless candles and distribute them to the people. If the hedgehog saw its shadow on Feb. 2, there would be six more weeks of winter.
German settlers in North America did not find hedgehogs, so they substituted the groundhog, and Groundhog Day was born.
Shaffer said the holiday has "changed and evolved" over the years - at the first Groundhog Day, people actually ate groundhog - but it's big in western Pennsylvania because "Punxsutawney just happened to be the town that celebrated it the most." Today, Punxsutawney is home to the Meteorologist Hall of Fame as well as a Weather Discovery Center where visitors can learn more about what weather does and how it works. There is even a Groundhog Zoo, where the famous Phil lives 364 days out of the year with his wife, Phyllis, and his cousin, Barney.
It doesn't take a trip to Punxsutawney to find groundhogs, however. "I have so many calls during the warm weather," said Ray Novotny, education manager/naturalist at Mill Creek MetroParks' Ford Nature Center. "They're very abundant - very, very, very abundant."
For the most part, groundhogs and humans don't have the best relationship. "They get into people's gardens," Novotny said. "Sometimes they make their burrow underneath their house or their deck or their porch. There are definite groundhog/human conflicts."
But all conflict is set aside on the morning of Feb. 2, as the members of the Inner Circle, a group of local men dedicated to the care of Punxsutawney Phil and Groundhog Day, gather to present the groundhog to the waiting crowd and to hear his prediction. "The Inner Circle are members of the community -businessmen, teachers, from all kinds of walks of life," Shaffer said. "Sometimes your family has been part of it for years and years and years. It's just these men who have been elected to take care of Phil and represent Groundhog Day."
Phil addresses the president of the Inner Circle in Groundhogese and gives his verdict, which the president translates and announces to the people. Groundhogese, Shaffer explained, has just two speakers - the president of the Inner Circle and Phil himself. The current president, Bill Cooper, is retiring, so this will be the last year he will receive Phil's prediction, and a new president will have to learn the language. But passing along the secret of Groundhogese is not one of Cooper's duties. "I don't know that he gets to teach it so much as Phil gets to teach it," Shaffer said.
Shaffer said organizers are expecting 15,000 visitors for Groundhog Day this year, acknowledging that with the Steelers in the Super Bowl, attendance may be down. Also, Punxsutawney gets more groundhog guests when the holiday is on a weekend. "This year it's on a weekday," Shaffer said. "That knocks our numbers down a little bit."
The biggest crowd Punxsutawney Phil has ever attracted was about 35,000 people in 1997, the first time Groundhog Day fell on a weekend following the 1993 release of the movie "Groundhog Day" starring Bill Murray. By the way, Shaffer said, that's not the real Phil in the film - it's a stunt groundhog. In fact, "Groundhog Day" wasn't even shot in Punxsutawney. "It was all filmed near Chicago," Shaffer said. "We have too small of a town for them to film here."
As far as the predictions are concerned, Groundhog.org reports that Punxsutawney Phil's prognosticating powers are 100 percent accurate. The experts, however, are dubious.
"I think it's horrible," Novotny said. "I guess our meteorologists can be proud that they're a little bit better."
Walter Fitzgerald, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Cleveland, acknowledged that he was unaware of any record of the accuracy of Punxsutawney Phil's predictions, but expressed skepticism at Phil's abilities. "Believe me, I don't think a rodent's too good at that," he said. "It's a crapshoot, really."
Stan Boney, chief meteorologist for WYTV-Channel 33, doesn't have anything against the holiday. "It gets people talking. I think it's cute," he said. "The people of Punxsutawny have a great gig going there." However, he doesn't take Phil's predictions into account when preparing his forecast. "I certainly don't use it as part of my forecasting," Boney said. "I go by the scientific theory. I don't know too many meteorologists who put a lot of faith in him."