Their View: Only in America can our hopes fall on a rodent
As we become more and more of an indoor nation, nicely insulated from the vicissitudes of winter, we also seem to have become more and more obsessed by the weather, and so it is that today is Groundhog Day. Only nitpickers insist that it should properly be called the much more mellifluous Candlemas Day.
The early German settlers in Pennsylvania brought with them a tradition regarding hedgehogs. There being no hedgehogs in the New World, the much larger groundhog would have to do. As a former defense secretary might have said, sometimes you have to work with the rodent you have rather than the rodent you want.
The tradition was that if the groundhog emerged from his burrow and saw his shadow, there would be six more weeks of winter weather. If the day was overcast and the groundhog saw no shadow, spring was right around the corner.
Groundhog Day was most famously celebrated in Punxsutawney, Pa., where - let's face it - midwinter diversion is at a premium, and the Feb. 2 appearance of Phil the Groundhog became the occasion for a big party.
The observance might have remained relatively local except for the appearance in 1993 of an oddly compelling movie starring Bill Murray called “Groundhog Day.” Murray, as an obnoxiously self-centered TV weatherman, is dispatched to Punxsutawney to cover the festivities, but becomes trapped there and is condemned to live the same day over and over and over again until he learns generosity and compassion, naps out of the time loop and is rewarded with Andie McDowell.
In short order, Punxsutawney Phil was certified as a minor American icon by appearing on “Oprah,” and the expression “groundhog day” had become universally understood shorthand for numbing repetition.
Could an educated nation embrace a pagan custom rooted in the Teutonic tribes of Northern Europe that attributes meteorological skills to a drowsy rodent rousted out of winter hibernation? You bet. This is such a wonderful country.
- Dale McFeatters,
Scripps Howard News Service