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Happy Groundhog Day!

February 2nd, 2009 (01:00 am)

current mood: optimistic

As I write this, it is officially Groundhog Day 2009, and about 6 hours before the world's most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, will emerge from his winter home and forecast the coming of an early spring. Or not.

Those of you who know me may be familiar with my strange connection with groundhogs. Yes, I have a thing for groundhogs. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that groundhogs have a thing for me. And not just because I am a huge fan of an early spring. I frequently see groundhogs by the side of the road. I mean, REALLY frequently. I once spotted 38 groundhogs on one day's drive. Often I see several at the same time. They seem to know that I'm about to drive by, and they all flock to the side of the road to wave me on. Honest. They have been known to line up to watch me drive past. I can be walking in a residential neighborhood where nobody has ever seen a groundhog, and suddenly, a whole family of them just appears before me. I am the Goddess of Groundhogs.

So, it's time for some Groundhog Day facts. These are compiled from my own groundhog research (I'm putting them in a novel) as well as from Wikipedia and from Groundhog .org - the Official Site of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

First, Some Groundhog Day Basics
Every year on February 2, the groundhog -- let's say, specifically, Punxsutawney Phil -- emerges from his winter hidey hole, bleary eyed from his long winter's sleep. According to legend, if the groundhog steps outside sees his shadow on this morning, he will be frightened back into his burrow, and there will be six more weeks of winter weather. If the day is cloudy so that he does not see his shadow, spring will come early.

The Groundhog Day tradition grew out of beliefs associated with Candlemas Day in Medieval Europe. It marked a milestone in the winter and the weather that day was important. According to an old Scottish poem:

As the light grows longer
The cold grows stronger
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas be cloud and snow
Winter will be gone and not come again
A farmer should on Candlemas day
Have half his corn and half his hay
On Candlemas day if thorns hang a drop
You can be sure of a good pea crop

Roman soldiers spread the Candelmas tradition to the Teutons, or Germans. They expanded on it by concluding that if the sun shone on Candlemas Day, an animal -- the hedgehog -- would cast a shadow, predicting six more weeks of bad weather. Eventually, descendants of those Germans emigrated to the United States and settled in Pennsylvania, arguably the hub of all modern Groundhog Day activity. European hedgehogs were in short supply in their new home, but Pennsylvania was home to a large population of groundhogs. Soon, the settlers realized that the groundhog possessed the wisdom and good sense to know that it should scurry back into its burrow, hedgehog-like, if its shadow appeared on Candelmas Day. And a new holiday tradition was born.

Phil Becomes Famous
Groundhog Day is celebrated throughout the United States and Canada, but the holiday's biggest fans know that the real party is at Gobbler's Knob, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the home of Punxsutawney Phil. In fact, The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper is credited with printing the news of the first Groundhog Day observance in 1886.

Phil's handlers claim that today's Phil is the same groundhog that prognosticated an early spring that year, and that he is now more than 120 years old. They attribute his longevity to the magical Elixir of Life, a secret recipe that Phil sips every summer at the Groundhog Picnic. Standard-issue teetotaling groundhogs live up to 6 years.

Phil has met presidents and governors. He starred in a 1993 movie with Bill Murray and has appeared on Oprah. During Prohibition, Phil threatened to impose 60 weeks of winter on the community if he wasn't allowed a drink.

Fun Facts About Groundhogs
The average groundhog is 20 inches long and weighs 12 to 15 pounds. Punxsutawney Phil is indeed a giant among groundhogs, measuring 22 inches long and weighing in at 20 pounds.

A groundhog's diet consists of lots of greens, fruits, and vegetables and very little water. Most of their liquids come from dewy leaves.

A groundhog can whistle when it is alarmed. Groundhogs also whistle in the spring when they want to attract groundhogs of the opposite sex. For that reason, they are sometimes called whistlepigs. Other names for the groundhog include woodchuck and land beaver.

Groundhogs are one of the few animals that really hibernate. Hibernation is not just a deep sleep. It is a deep coma. During hibernation, the body temperature drops to a few degrees above freezing, the heart barely beats, blood scarcely flows, and breathing nearly stops.

Despite their cute, cuddly appearance, groundhogs can be quite aggressive and will defend themselves if threatened. They are much faster than they look, and they have exceptionally strong jaws.

A Word to Phil
Phil, if you're reading this, I am SO ready for an early spring! Please pay no attention to any shadow that may or may not be on the ground when you step outside this morning. Thank you. You're my hero.

(A link to this entry is being posted on Markeroni's "History Nugget" blog, at http://www.markeroni.com/blog/history-nugget-20090127. Markeroni, the gentle art of landmark-snarfing is an “informal history” site which provides information about historical markers and landmarks so that you can find them, and a place to log them when you have.)


Posted by: Lawrence M. Schoen (klingonguy)
Posted at: February 2nd, 2009 01:25 pm (UTC)

Apparently Phil does not follow your blog.

Posted by: White Raven, with or without a 13 (whytraven)
Posted at: February 3rd, 2009 04:51 am (UTC)

Cool post! :)

Posted by: Kristin Lewis (physics_queen)
Posted at: February 3rd, 2009 06:15 pm (UTC)

Thanks for posting this! I've come over from the Markeroni Blog, and was just pondering the origins of Groundhog's Day with my friend over lunch. I thought about doing some research and posting it for next week, but you beat me to it, and I've learned something. :)


Posted by: petrini1 (petrini1)
Posted at: February 3rd, 2009 11:56 pm (UTC)

So glad you liked it! I've only just recently gotten on Markeroni and would like to do more with it. I see in your LJ profile that you're a Bookcrosser too! Clearly, we were separated at birth.

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