A Groundhog’s Tale: Winter’s End

Groundhog Day Vocabulary Bingo

In anticipation of Groundhog Day, I traveled to Gobbler's Knob in Pennsylvania last week to talk to Punxsutawney Phil, the marmot who has been predicting winter's end every year since 1886.

With hundreds of reporters starting to gather outside, I managed to squeeze into Phil's burrow early to celebrate the event over a game of Groundhog Day Vocabulary Bingo and to ask him how he came to be the world's most famous weather forecaster.

Here's what the solitary and somewhat cranky rodent told me …

Q: So, Phil, how did Groundhog Day get started?
Phil: Well, the story handed down in my family goes like this.

Long ago, humans were very concerned with how long each winter would be. Being furless and unable to hibernate like us more sensible creatures, they worried that winter would outlast their food and firewood.

So these humans looked for ways to predict when winter would end. In Germany, they wisely looked to my friend the hedgehog for a clue.

Q: What was the clue?
Phil: February 2nd, Candlemas Day, was considered the traditional midpoint of winter—halfway between the shortest, darkest day of the year and the spring equinox. And folks came to believe that the weather on that particular day provided a sign of winter's end. They'd even sing this song:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings cloud and rain,
Go, winter, and come not again.

Q: But where do hedgehogs and groundhogs come into the story?
Phil: Well, I think humans saw that the very intelligent hedgehog instinctively knew when winter was at an end. Connecting my friend's behavior to the Candlemas tradition, the humans agreed. If, on February 2nd, a hedgehog emerged from his burrow, saw his shadow, and ran back inside to hide, that confirmed the day was "fair and bright" and winter would last another six weeks. But, if he came out and didn't see his shadow, that meant the day was cloudy and winter would soon be gone.

When German settlers came to America, they brought the tradition with them. But, finding no hedgehogs here, they wisely gave the job to my groundhog ancestors. And predicting winter’s end on Groundhog Day has been the family business ever since.

Q: Interesting, but now we have the technology to predict each season’s length. So why are people still so fascinated with you and your predictions?
Phil: Well, I’m a good-looking marmot, so their fascination is understandable. But mostly people just want a reason to get together and socialize in the sometimes-gloomy winter. A lot of people feel blue in the winter, and Groundhog Day just helps to remind them that spring will come—sooner or later.

Q: Speaking of the winter blues, isn’t it depressing to spend all winter alone in a burrow?
Phil: As my dad used to say, "Each creature has its ways and reasons for adjusting to changing seasons."
We groundhogs like our own company, and we’re built for hibernating with our double fur coats. But you humans really need to play outside and get some sunshine when you can.

Q: How do you store up enough food for those winter months?
Phil: Before winter hits, I fatten up on a nice mix of alfalfa, clover, and dandelions. You can’t go wrong with greens. Then my metabolism slows way down in winter so I can just sleep through the cold months, living on my fat. By the time spring comes, I am one well-rested, sleek marmot.

On the other hand, I hear you humans stay awake, play less, and eat more carbohydrates in the winter. No wonder you get the winter blues. You should play and exercise more and eat more greens.

Q: I can’t help but notice that it’s pretty dark and tight here in this burrow.
Phil: Works for me. It’s cozy. But you’ve got to find what works for you. I hear, for humans, that lighting up the house or getting sunlight helps with the blues. Inviting other creatures into your burrow is good, too, though personally I avoid that—especially snakes. But if it works for you …

Q: So, could you give us a hint about your prediction for this year?
Phil: Sure. Winter ends. Spring comes. Always has, always will. As my dad said, you just need to find ways to get motivated and make the most out of each and every season.

Q: Well, thanks, Phil, for taking time out of your schedule. Uh, how do I get out of this burrow?
Phil: Take the second tunnel on the right, and go out the first hole on your left. Watch out for roots and reporters.

Are you waiting for Phil’s prediction and hoping for spring?

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