One Man's Groundhog Is Another Man's Burning Effigy

I think I could live in America for the rest of my life and I would still not really understand Groundhog Day. It catches me off guard every year. I'll be making polite small talk about the weather with someone in an elevator or a shop and all of a sudden they'll smile and say jovially "well, they say we've got six more weeks of winter left, of course!"

And I'll blink and look confused and think wait, did I miss something on the Weather Channel?

I tried to get Sean to explain it to me in more detail on our walk to work this morning, and that went about as well as you'd expect.

"So there's this groundhog...." I prompted.

"Yes," said Sean. "And he---"

"Wait, is it, like, one specific groundhog?"

"Well.....yes. But I mean, obviously he's changed over the years. They've changed groundhogs. There have been several different groundhogs, is what I'm trying to say. Because, you know, the first groundhog died or whatever. Because groundhogs obviously die. But anyway----"

"But how do they choose a new groundhog?" I asked. "Is it, like, a relative of the deceased groundhog? Is there a whole groundhog dynasty? Is there a hierarchy of groundhogs and when they meet each other at bars they're like, oh hey pretty lady, I'm third in line to the groundhog throne. Wait until my grandfather's grandfather kicks it and it'll be me up there on Groundhog Day? Or is it maybe kind of like the Kennedys and they're just really well-bred groundhogs and they summer on Nantucket and---"

"Uh," said Sean. "I don't know. But the groundhog pokes its head out of his burrow on February 2nd and he----"


"No, not talks! Why would a groundhog talk?"

"Uh, why would you determine how many weeks of winter are left by asking a groundhog?"

"Yeah," said Sean. "Anyway. He pokes his head out of his burrow and if he doesn't see his shadow on the ground, winter is almost over. But if he does see his shadow, winter will continue for six more weeks."

"And this is an official holiday?"

"Well, it's not like people take the day off work or anything, but....."

"But it's written on calendars and day planners, right? Children are taught this in schools? It's a national thing?"

"Well, yeah."

"And the whole holiday is based on whether one specific groundhog comes out of a burrow and sees his shadow?"

"Uh, whatever," said Sean. "Your people make a holiday out of rolling cheese down hills."

(Now let me interject. What he was talking about, see, was the Annual Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling and Wake, which is not a holiday at all, it's just one random day in May where a bunch of people in a small town in England throw a wheel of cheese down a hill and chase after it.)

"What you're talking about," I told him, "is the Annual Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling and Wake, which is not a holiday at all, it's just one random day in May where a bunch of people in a small town in England throw a wheel of cheese down a hill and chase after it."

"And you don't think that's any weirder than a groundhog looking for his shadow?" said Sean.

"But it's not a holiday!" I said. "Hardly anyone even knows about it. I only found out about it a few months ago when I was doing a story on it, and I'm English."

"Oh," said Sean.

And then I felt bad, so I told him about Guy Fawkes Night.

"There was this man named Guy Fawkes," I explained, "and in 1605 he made a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament on November 5th. So every year in England on November 5th, kids make these really realistic effigies of Guy Fawkes, and then they have a big bonfire and they throw the effigies on the bonfire and burn them."


"And for a few weeks before this, the kids wheel their effigies of Guy Fawkes around in a wheelbarrow and say "penny for the guy, penny for the guy" and people give them money, which in the old days was so they could buy fireworks, but now I think it's illegal for kids to buy fireworks so they probably have to give it to charity or something, but I bet they never do. And then on November 5th, the whole town goes to this big town bonfire and you all watch the effigies of Guy Fawkes being thrown onto the fire and bursting into flames, and then there's a big fireworks display. And people have sparklers and things, and you eat baked potatoes and roasted chestnuts and sometimes there's even a makeshift theme park set up with a ferris wheel and bumper cars too. And you drink hot chocolate. While you watch stuff burn."


"Oh and also, there's this one town in England where burning barrels of tar are carried through the street on Guy Fawkes Night as well. I forget why. But it's definitely a thing."

"And this is an official holiday?"

"Well, it's not like people take the day off work or anything, but....."

"But it's written on calendars and day planners, right? Children are taught this in schools? It's a national thing?"

"Well, yeah."

"Don't ever tell me how weird Groundhog Day is ever again."


PS: I just Wikipedia-d the heck out of Groundhog Day and the folklore behind it is kind of awesome. I am now making it my aim to travel to southeastern Pennsylvania for next year's occasion, where "the Pennsylvania German dialect is the only language spoken at the event, and those who speak English pay a penalty, usually in the form of a nickel, dime, or quarter, per word spoken, put into a bowl in the center of the table."  I have 363 days to learn Pennsylvania German. 

Feb 03, 2010

The thing about Groundhog Day that has always bothered me is that he only has a shadow if it's *sunny*. Shouldn't that mean that spring is coming sooner?

Rachel H
Feb 04, 2010

When we learned about Groundhog Day in school, we were taught that if he saw his shadow, we'd have six more weeks of winter. If he didn't see his shadow, we'd have six weeks until spring.

Which is the same exact thing.

So I never really understood it either.

Feb 04, 2010

Let me preface this by saying that I can't believe I'm de-lurking here to talk about Groundhog Day, of all things. My apologies.

Yes, Groundhog Day is completely nonsensical. I am from Pennsylvania, so I can call it like I see it.

I know that Wikipedia talks about the folklore of the groundhog originating in the southeastern part of the state, but the main event, so to speak, is held in the small town of Punxsutawney, which is in the western half of Pennsylvania, an hour or so away from Pittsburgh.

I have been to this event, and dear God it is a sight to see. Tens of thousands of blue collar local types, creepy tourists, and college students all drinking and carousing the entire night before February 2nd. It's like some sort of bizarre Mardi Gras, but no flashing of the breasts and bead collecting... just cold weather, bad food, and a small woodland creature exhibition at dawn.

So really, what's not to love?

Oh, by the way, Pennsylvania German? Does not sound anything like real German to me. I've listened to Amish people speak... it's mind boggling. 363 days is not enough time!

Feb 04, 2010

Bonfire night makes way more sense than groundhog day - i mean fireworks are pretty, its an excuse for drinking cider in the park, and jacket potatoes.
What could be better?

Feb 04, 2010

Don't forget the Bonfire Night toffee apples! Toffee apples whilst watching the fireworks (with the obligatory ooohs and aaahhs from the crowd) is just brilliant. Plus a jacket potato is never yummier than when it's been cooked in tinfoil in a bonfire.

Feb 04, 2010

Groundhog Day I don't get, but I do love Bonfire Night!! You always get those warnings on the TV over here about watching out for hedgehogs in case they get into the fire... um.

Feb 04, 2010

I love Bonfire Night, mostly for the carnivals that are held around this time in Somerset - the floats and costumes have to be seen to be believed. Honestly, the Notting Hill carnival is nothing compared with the Bridgwater one. Although God knows what they'll do now the UK has stopped selling old fashioned light bulbs - they are the mainstay of the whole thing.

PS - the tar barrel junket is held at Ottery St Mary in Devon. They're strange down in Devon.

Feb 04, 2010

ha! i'd second that about devon, particularly the blokes in ottery who actually carry the things. have you ever been to the tar barrels? i spent my teenage years thinking it was the coolest thing ever (probably more to do with hanging out at the fairground with boys) and now find it frankly terrifying.

Feb 04, 2010 in order to truly prepare for the whole experience, you need to rent Ground Hog Day with Billy Murray and Andie McDowell. Great movie. Great premise. Great cameos of Punxatawney Phil...that would be the groundhog in question.

I watch it every year. Hey, you have your traditions, I have mine. ;)

Feb 04, 2010

Funny thing about Pennsylvania German - I grew up being told part of my heritage is Pennsylvania "Dutch" and no one bothered to tell me that by "Dutch," us silly Americans mean "Deutsch," which is of course German for "German." And for some reason, seeing your reference to Pennsylvania German made me want to share all of this with you. Ahem.

Feb 04, 2010

I grew up in Punxsutawney, immersed in groundhog legend and lore and it still seems weird to me.

I don't know that I would prepare for the experience by renting "Groundhog Day," it wasn't even filmed in Punxsutawney. It was filmed in Illinois! But what JessicaP said further up in the comments is true, it IS like Mardi Gras, without the beads and breast-flashing.

Feb 04, 2010

I still don't get Groundhog Day. Why is it still winter if he sees his shadow? Doesn't it mean it's sunny out? It boggles my mind every year.

Somewhat related, I gave my husband a quick lesson on Guy Fawkes (which I learned about from my awesome Oxford-born Shakespeare prof in college) after we watched the second Harry Potter movie. The phoenix is named Fawkes! Surely, that is not a coincidence.

Operation Pink Herring
Feb 04, 2010

But Phil doesn't just SEE his shadow -- he looks, and then a tuxedoed man in a top hat leans his head in and asks Phil what he saw, and pretends to have a little conference with Phil the Groundhog, and then he reports Phil's decision on the shadow vs. no-shadow issue to the assembled crowd! If I had one of those 30 before 30 lists, celebrating Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney would be on it (uh, except I've now missed the last Groundhog Day before my 30th birthday, so... nevermind.)

Feb 04, 2010

Guy Fawkes day is one of the main things I miss about England. Every year I am a little bit sad on November 5th! Definitely not what I expected to miss when I moved over here!

Jenne Speegle
Feb 04, 2010

Groundhog Day is actually my birthday, which makes me one of the people doubly lucky to be born on a non gift giving holiday, meaning that america has a national holiday just for me.

Feb 04, 2010

Bonfire Night sounds way cooler than Groundhog Day.

Feb 04, 2010

I was trying to explain Groundhog Day to my boyfriend, who is from Mexico, and he just could not get past the "small woodland animal named Punxatawney Phil." We never even got to the "6 more weeks of winter" part of the discussion. Whatever, they have Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) which creeps me right the hell out.

Feb 04, 2010

I am so angry that my sister threw a fit when we were 30 miles from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania and REFUSED to let our parents take us to see Punxsatuawney Phil. So angry. I'm never going to forgive her. (This event took place about 15 years ago.) I just want to see THE groundhog.

Feb 04, 2010

Enough about this burning groundhog or whatever. Could you just post a picture of your haircut? I've been waiting with baited breadth since your tweets about it.

Thespian Libby
Feb 04, 2010

Groundhog day is my birthday; If I see my shadow, I go back to bed for six weeks.

HIp Hip Gin Gin
Feb 04, 2010

My husband is from PA and has been to the whole Groundhog Day situation and from what he has told me the part with the furry critter and the shadow is like 1% of the festivities. The other 99% consists of people getting crazy drunk in the freezing cold. He also told me that the groundhog's little hut is heated so it's really a wonder he comes out to look for his shadow at all.

I don't have this on good authority from a reliable source or anything, but I'm fairly sure that the groundhog handlers decide whether he sees his shadow based on the Farmer's Almanac.

Locusts and Wild Honey
Feb 04, 2010

I love weird holidays! No matter where they're from!

Guy Fawkes day has always struck me as a combination of Halloween and the Fourth of July.

And yes, if you haven't seen the movie "Groundhog Day" you need to start there. It's a classic. Very very funny.

Feb 04, 2010

Man, when you live in cold, wintry climates, Groundhog's Day is a BIG thing because we all want him to be all "early spring!" Which, really, he's a Groundhog. So I think it is more of a hopeful day like "please let winter end soon, please!"

This is how it was growing up. Then I moved to Arizona and then Northern California. And then promptly forgot about the holiday because who cares when you live in a climate with no snow?

The only time I paid attention to Groundhog's Day in CA was after I got laid off and was moving back to Chicago. I NEEDED to know what the winter was going to be like once I moved home.

Yes, I realize this is all ridiculous.

Erin @ Fierce Beagle
Feb 04, 2010

Or you could befriend Dwight Schrute, and he could translate for you. Although I hear his Pennsylvania Deutsch is mostly pre-industrial and religious.

Nothing But Bonfires
Feb 04, 2010

And about beets.

jennifer in sf
Feb 04, 2010

I've always been jealous of Guy Fawkes day because it sounds so awesomely crazy.

Feb 04, 2010

Yep, it's Pennsylvania Dutch, not German. And I find it interesting that they say it's the only language spoken there - the numbers of those who can speak it fluently have really fallen off as members of older generations (that grew up speaking it at home) have died. And yes, I did grow up in south-central PA, why do you ask?

On a completely nerdy note, they actually haul poor Phil out. So he's hanging out in his heated hut (how alliterative) and they reach in and grab him. I'm glad no one does that to me in the dead of winter. There would be consequences.

Feb 04, 2010

So when I learned about it growing up they said that if he saw his shadow, that he would get scared and go back into his burrow and return to hibernation - therefore winter's not over yet, but if he didn't see his shadow and headed out that the warmer weather was coming.

Even though Punxsatawny Phil is the most famous there are other groundhog predictors too. There were 21 this year and 12 of them said Early Spring while 9 that said 6 more yeah we can tell it's really accurate prediction.

Oh and the Canadians celebrate it too...not just Americans.

Feb 04, 2010

The tar barrels is SO FRIGHTENING! My parents live near Ottery St Mary and I went for the first time this year - I assumed there would be some kind of safety measures in place, but no. We were stood on a narrow street with hundreds of other people, too packed in to really move, and then some big blokes carrying an ENORMOUS flaming barrel of tar (obvs), protected only by oven gloves, come through the middle of the crowd, so everyone is pushed up against the walls and the people in the middle are barely inches away from the flames. Dangerous and exciting and dangerous!

Feb 04, 2010

Yep, that groundhog thing sure is different.

But I wouldn't thought, from your blog title, that you'd be ideologically pro-bonfire and therefore pro-Fawkes?!

Pennsylvania German, also known as Pennsylvania Dutch is the language my Grandfather and his siblings spoke. They believed that teaching their children would make them less American, force them to continue to stand out as they had, so they kept the language between themselves.

BUT this didn't keep my father from learning a few strange sayings. And it didn't keep my Grandfather from yelling at me in Pennsylvanian Dutch at reunions and then laughing at me when I had NO idea what the hell he was saying to me.

I wish they had passed the language down...

Kerri Anne
Feb 04, 2010

Groundhog Day, the event, is a bunch of nonsense (in my opinion). Groundhog Day, the movie starring Bill Murray, is awesome.

Diana B.
Feb 04, 2010

When Punxsutawney Phil isn't in his little heated hut for Groundhog Day, he lives at the library. Or at least he did 10 years ago when my brother lived Punxsutawney, NOT the library.

Feb 04, 2010

Groundhog = harbinger of spring.

The day is a marker to keep folks from getting the winter blahs, which most of us in NJ have a bad case of this year.

Terri Fellers
Feb 04, 2010

Do you know about the Guy Fawkes celebration in Marin every year?

It's at Muir Beach, sponsored by the Pelican Inn.

11/5/10, Guy Fawkes event sponsored by the Pelican Inn (including following the bag piper to the beach for a burning of Guy), (415) 383-6000 or for more info.

Feb 04, 2010

i have to delurk to give a shout out to buckeye chuck. ohio also has a groundhog who, apparently, has a better record than punxsutawney phil and did not see his shadow this year. yay, early spring!

Sometimes I think we need to scrub our calendars of obscure old holidays and make some new ones that are easier to plan parties around!

Feb 05, 2010

I disagree heartily with Alecia. I think we need to keep all the old holidays, keep all the history we can, and save the world from being overrun with "top 40" crap.

I also think we should institute three day weekends, and mid-afternoon siestas.

And there should be theaters that only show black and white movies.

And there should be night clubs where people dress in floor-length gowns and dance to a big band orchestra. And drink pink champagne cocktails.

Feb 05, 2010

When I was little, the deal with Groundhog Day was that if he didn't see his shadow, we had six more weeks of winter, but if he did see the shadow, it was only a month and a half until spring.

I remember being pretty aggravated when I realized it was the same either way.

Feb 06, 2010

It's always bugged me that a groundhog in PA figures out the weather for the rest of the country. Growing up in Minnesota it was obviously going to be winter for a lot longer than six more weeks from Feb 2, too.

Feb 06, 2010

So I just heard this explanation on public radio the other day: if he sees his shadow, it's because it's sunny. If it's sunny in the winter, it's because there is a high pressure system overhead. Read: cold. You know how in the winter we (well, those of us who have winter) get those clear, cold sunny days? Yeah, like that. If he doesn't see his shadow, it's because it isn't sunny, there's no high pressure system overhead and it's not as cold. It's all based on an assumption that whatever weather we're having now will continue for the next few weeks.

Mar 02, 2010

When I read the title to this post I laughed out loud! And then I realized I had no idea what it meant. But then I *read* the post and laughed again! So my original laughing was not in vain. You are hilarious.

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