Early Sunday morning on Groundhog Day, handlers at Gobbler's Knob, Pa., will remove Punxsutawney Phil from his den. If he sees his shadow, we'll have six more weeks of winter. No shadow, and we get an early spring. At least that's the myth, the legend, the old wives' tale.
Of course, it's all hogwash. Rousting a groundhog from hibernation to see its shadow on Feb. 2 is no better a predictor of winter weather than checking woolly bears' color bands in the fall.
But it's all harmless fun. Just ask the folks in Punxsutawney, Pa. Groundhog Day is a huge event there; thousands of visitors attend and 43 corporate sponsors help make it happen. And it's the one day of the year groundhogs get just a bit of respect.
And Pennsylvania isn't the only place that really gets into Groundhog Day. Even states where groundhogs don't live have come up with ways to get in on the action. In Ohio, for example, Buckeye Chuck assumes Phil's role. In Michigan it's Woodchuck Woody. Staten Island Chuck takes centerstage in New York. And in West Virginia, it's French Creek Freddie, named for his home at the State Wildlife Center. Maine has W. Chuck Berry. And the Tennessee Aquarium is home to Chattanooga Chuck.
Because groundhogs, which are large ground squirrels, occur only in the eastern United States, some western states have come up with creative ways to be part of the holiday. Sarah Palin decreed Feb. 2 as "Marmot Day" while she was governor of Alaska. Several species of marmots live in western states. Colorado relies on the wisdom of Flatiron Freddie, a yellow-bellied marmot. And Oklahoma, where groundhogs do live, tries to cheat the system by using sibling grizzly bears, Will and Wiley, at the Oklahoma City Zoo.
The silliness of all this is that ground hogs at middle latitudes rarely venture from their burrows on Feb. 2. They are still sound asleep deep in their burrows. After they enter their winter dens in the fall, groundhogs plug the entrance to the burrow and curl into a snuggly ball. Their body temperature drops about 57 degrees, to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and their pulse drops from more than 100 beats per minute to just four beats per minute. Clearly, few wild groundhogs see the light of day on Feb. 2.
So how did the tradition of Groundhog Day come to be? It actually began centuries ago with a European church holiday, Candlemas.
A verse from an old English song set the stage.