Today is Groundhog Day, and as you read these words a group of men in strange hats are descending upon a terrified rodent's dwelling, determined to yank him into the light so that questionable meteorological predictions can be made. There is no scientific basis for this, and the Farmer’s Almanac (our go-to source for all things earth-bound) makes no mention of its efficacy. Nonetheless, the situation persists year after year. Now, Duke Cannon is all for traditions, but what is it about this one that draws crowds? Pull up a stump as we attempt to get to the bottom of this baffling “holiday.”
It all boils down to this: For centuries, people have gotten sick of winter and have grasped for any sort of hope that warmer days were close by. In old Europe (Germany to be specific), the scientific method at the time was pretty much limited to believing in superstitions and folklore, and this enlightened thinking is how it came to pass that an animal’s shadow either being absent or present due to random cloud cover became a belief system. Also: it was bears that were originally anointed as the suitable meteorological prophets, but when their population grew scarce, another hibernating mammal—the badger—was called up from the minors.
WHY A GROUNDHOG?
As a nod to their forebears, Dutch and German settlers of Pennsylvania wrangled a badger from its slumber for their annual weather spectacular. The problem was that the North American species of badger was decidedly more vicious than its European counterpart, and not at all accommodating to pagan rites that involved being held up by the scruff to an audience of smiling pilgrims (a quiet man named Amos Stoltzfus was rumored to have lost an eye in the resultant melee). A woodland search was undertaken to find a more compliant animal, and the groundhog proved just as plentiful, much gentler, and far easier to handle (if slightly less photogenic).
Fun fact: the Latin alias for groundhog is Arctomys Monax, which means “bear rat.” Duke Cannon acknowledges that this is cool.
Did the Pennsylvania Dutch and Germans bring with them to America their hopes, dreams, and utterly strange customs? Yes, they did. Did they also form Ye Olde Traveler’s Bureau of the Province of Pennsylvania, which became what we know today as the Pennsylvania Tourism Commission, a cabal of lobbyists in strange hats dedicated to keeping Phil in Punxsutawney at all costs, and with him the millions in resulting tourism dollars (not to mention the prestige)? The answer is a loud, emphatic ja.
THE HARD NUMBERS
Most assessments of Phil's predictive accuracy over the years have given him a lower percentage of success than just relying on random chance. In other words: a toddler in another country (Iceland, let’s say), unfamiliar with America or its weather patterns, would probably have better odds of accurately foretelling the continuation of winter and/or the commencement of spring. But this doesn’t seem to stop a nation from waiting on Phil’s proclamation like followers in some strange cult of marmot worship.
Hopefully we’ve been able to shed some light on the strange goings-on that occur every February in Punxsutawney (and elsewhere). Perhaps we’ve only confused you further. Alas, the ritual continues, and while other seems to be willing to fervently maintain the faith, Duke Cannon will choose to instead maintain something far more tangible, like our facial hair.