I write books. Sometimes.

Groundhog Day

by WillHB
Wed, Feb 02, 2022
Read time: 10 min.

A groundhog with a leaf on its head.

Happy Groundhog Day! And since we’re all here anyway, why don’t we take a minute to discuss the question on all of our minds about Groundhog Day: “Seriously, wtf?”

Admit it, you’ve wondered from time to time why there’s a holiday named after a giant squirrel, and what they have to do with weather. Well, today Groundhog Day itself finally crawls out of its hole, looks around, and confronts the shadow lurking within its heart–its own history.

The Tradition

According to legend, every February 2, the groundhog emerges from its burrow to predict the weather–if the weather is sunny, the furry Weather Beast will see its shadow and scurry back in fear, leading to six more weeks of winter; otherwise, spring will come early.[1]

For the most part, that’s…the extent of it. It’s kind of a bullshit holiday.

Unless you live in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. In which case…it’s kind of a big deal, since that’s the site of an annual festival that has had as many as 40,000 attendees.[2]

And that’s where things get weird.

First off: the ceremony itself occurs in a place called “Gobbler’s Knob,” and no one sees anything wrong with that.

And then there’s the Lore. Yes, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club–the organization who handles this event–has lore. There is One True Groundhog–Punxsutawney Phil, and his predictions are correct every time.[3] Phil has fulfilled this role every year since the tradition’s inception in 1886. In captivity, groundhogs have been known to live up to 14 years.[4][5]

This suggests that either his weather forecasting is actually the least interesting thing about him, or it’s more of a Dread Pirate Roberts situation.

Well, according to the Groundhog Club, it’s the former.[3] Evidently the source of this discrepancy is that each summer Phil attends the Groundhog Picnic, where he takes one sip of the “elixir of life,” which bestows seven additional years of life upon him.[3]

He also has a wife named Phyliss. Phyliss does not receive this elixir. The lore is silent on whether Phyliss is merely the latest in a long line of spouses, and whether they’re all named Phyliss. Either way, that’s some cold shit. I don’t think I really need to explain why.

So allow me to explain why.

By my calculations–assuming that Phil began this arrangement at the age of…let’s say two (a sort of middle age for a wild woodchuck), he had twelve remaining years of normal lifespan for a now captive groundhog. Each year, he adds an extra seven years to his lifespan (but consumes one year), leading to a net gain of six years per calendar year of his tenure. Since, at the time of this writing, 136 years have elapsed, that would suggest that Phil now has a backlog of 816 years of lifespan. The implication of the Groundhog Club’s statement on the issue is that, despite this monumental reserve, Phil is not inclined to permit Phyliss a single drop of elixir on any interval that would allow her to survive her natural lifespan (which would seemingly require one drop every seven years).

This sort of ruthless attitude, I suppose, is understandable, since Phil has…seen some shit. Since Phil has been around from the very start, he surely remembers the days when the tradition on Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney included eating groundhog. Lots of groundhog.[6] You think he just forgot that? That after all this time, he doesn’t look at the “Inner Circle”–his caretakers and captors of the past century–every day and see the people who used to feast on his friends and family? After something like that, perhaps he views letting Phyliss go as a kindness.

Oh, also, Phil talks. In Groundhogese.[3] But only to the Groundhog Club president, who wears a fancy hat. It’s cute.

The president then relays the interpreted message to the crowd, which is always just the weather forecast. This seems like a bit of a waste to me…if I could talk to an immortal, talking groundhog, I’d probably stray toward different topics of conversation every now and then. Then again, the FAQ doesn’t mention whether the two of them ever converse outside of this ceremony, or what sort of things Phil tells the president to burn.

The Science

Yes, the science. Let’s return to that claim that Phil has 100% accuracy. As it turns out, someone finally held Punxsutawney Phil accountable and measured his performance objectively (to the extent that you can reasonably measure the meaning of “early spring”).

The Washington Post examined the thirty year period from 1984-2014 and looked at the difference in average temparatures of shadow years vs non-shadow years for the six week interval that Phil is responsible for.[7] This sidestepped the vagueness of “early spring.” Further, as it turns out, the weather isn’t the same all over, so how “right” Phil was really depends on where you are. According to this study, Phil was right more often than not in some cities. Not in others. Either way, the differences between shadow and non-shadow years were small.

Not all examinations have been as favorable. Stormfax Almanac, for example, assessed Phil’s accuracy as 39%.[8] This is comfortably inferior to random chance, suggesting that his propensity for using sunny weather as a predictor of cold temperatures might be ill-advised.

I’ll admit that I admire that rigor that was applied to this inane exercise (see my analysis of Phil’s use of the elixir above), but I can’t help but notice that this was a lot of effort to put into measuring how well a rat can predict the weather, and this is from a guy who spent a month making a shark map. There was already a shark map.

The Origin Story

Okay, now that we’ve come to the astounding revelation that groundhogs aren’t magic…where did this tradition come from?

Well, it’s apparently descended from Candlemas, a Christian holiday on February 2 that commemorates something something Jesus.[9] At one point, sunny weather portended cold temperatures ahead.

They even had a proverb for it[8]:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,

Winter has another flight.

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,

Winter will not come again.

Fun fact: superstitions have more power when they rhyme.

This particular superstition further evolved in Germany, where a hedgehog got involved and started seeing its shadow.[9] When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, they realized that the notion of a hedgehog predicting the weather is just stupid, and settled on a groundhog.

As I mentioned earlier, early celebrations of Groundhog Day within Punxsutawney may not have have been quite as pleasant for groundhogs as the modern festivities, insofar as they reportedly do not enjoy being eaten. I’m given to understand that the Irish had similar complaints about the original Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations.

The Movie

Then of course there’s the movie. In 1993, Bill Murray starred in Groundhog Day, and attendance in Punxsutawney spiked from 2,000 to an average of 10,000 [10] (and grew from there).

And let’s be realistic: that movie is the only reason why most people give a damn about Groundhog Day. It’s also the reason why even a cursory search for “Groundhog Day” will summon a depressing glut of COVID-19 comparisons. Yeah, they’re not saying that it’s like a rodent popping out of a hole.

If you haven’t seen the movie, you should. But since you probably have, there’s not much else to say about the substance of the film, other than that my friend Laurie is in it.

The Musical

That’s right. The musical. A Broadway musical based on the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. A terrible idea.

And once I heard about it, I knew I would have to see it. Like those damn Peeps Oreos all over again.

But…you know…I live in the midwest, and there’s a pandemic and all. And looking up a bootleg video on YouTube would be wrong.

So I definitely have not seen this musical. That is not something I could have done.

But hypothetically. What would I have seen?

I mean, I might have struggled through the terrible audio, completely unable to hear the words until halfway through the second time, only before finding another video and starting over.

And, hypothetically, I couldn’t help but feel…haven’t I seen this show before?

And my wife might chime in, “Gobler’s Knob? Is that what it is in the movie? Have I just missed this?”

Yes. Yes, you did.

A few highlights from the performance:

“Is it a squirrel? Is it a beaver? Kinda both, but not quite either.”

I don’t know, it just appealed to me, partially because…what the hell is a groundhog, anyway? Also, did you know that groundhogs are also called “whistlepigs”? Why is that not the official name? Doesn’t “Whistlepig Day” roll off the tongue much better?

“You’re gonna miss the Groundhog Dinner.”

“Forget it. I had groundhog for lunch.”

Substanstantially identical to a line from the movie, but I still found it amusing because the darkness within me already knew that, yeah, they ate the groundhogs.

“Suck my balls, I’m out.”

Easily the best line in any musical ever. I think inclusion of this line should be mandatory in any production.

Picture Oliver Twist: “Please, sir…suck my balls, I’m out.”

The Sound of Music? “The hills are alive…suck my balls, I’m out.”

It even works for movies. “Frankly, my dear, suck my balls, I’m out.”

Welp, I think that’s about as much fun as you can have repeating the same punchline over and over.

A final thing I enjoyed:

“This guy is clearly nuts, but he is desperate and he’s payin’.”

Okay, that line’s not so great now that I look at it, but I enjoyed the context. Specifically, that they randomly dedicated an entire musical number to a scathing criticism of alternative medicine. Shockingly, that’s the sort of thing that appeals to the sort of person who cites their sources in an article about a holiday where a giant squirrel is forced to do weather forecasts.

In closing, I think Una summed up the final verdict on the show pretty well: “It should be stupid, but it’s great.” Because…yeah, it really was.

Unfortunately, while Groundhog Day may last forever for both Phil Connors and Punxsutawney Phil, it has proven more ephemeral for us, as the musical has already closed.


Huh. It looks like someone dropped this here. Who do you think it belongs to?

UPDATE: A version I haven’t seen, but has the advantage of still being there…

  1. Groundhog Day ↩︎

  2. Groundhog Day 2020 sets attendance record in Punxsutawney ↩︎

  3. Phil FAQ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  4. Groundhogs Fact Sheet ↩︎

  5. Five Things You Didn’t Know about Groundhogs ↩︎

  6. Groundhog Was Once on Punxsutawney’s Menu ↩︎

  7. 30 years of groundhog forecasts, mapped ↩︎

  8. Groundhog Day History from Stormfax. I will admit I was initially reluctant to cite this particular source, which has all the professionalism and design sense of a late 90’s Geocities page. Nevertheless, a number of sources I trust have cited them, and it’s consistent with what I’ve otherwise read, so…I guess that’s fine? ↩︎ ↩︎

  9. Groundhog Day: Phil’s Myth Stretches Back Centuries ↩︎ ↩︎

  10. His Moment In the Sun ↩︎

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