Who is Punxsutawney Phil?
By Leah Lancione
The Christmas or Hanukkah decorations are put away and the New Year’s ball already dropped, so what’s next? Valentine’s Day? Presidents’ Day? St. Patty’s? Now, just hold on. Don’t forget about observing Groundhog Day on Feb. 2, though it is not recognized as a federal holiday. Americans either choose to observe this day as a national tradition and predictor of the onset or delay of Spring, or they ignore it all together. Whether the day passes by without your attention or you anxiously wait to find out if the groundhog (“Phil”) in Gobblers Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa., sees his shadow along with the thousands of people who flock to the event each year, it’s likely you don’t know all the rich folklore surrounding this fuzzy rodent.
So who is this elusive woodchuck, whistle pig or land beaver, most commonly referred to as a groundhog? It is a rodent of the family Sciuridae that belongs to the group of large ground squirrels known as marmots, according to Wikipedia. Punxsutawney Phil is esteemed above all other groundhogs because his emergence on the early morning of Feb. 2 each year to provide a prognostication to the president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club: It’s either six more weeks of Winter weather if he sees his shadow and returns to his burrow, or it’s the unofficial start of Spring if he doesn’t see his shadow and remains above ground.
When and why did this tradition start? Well, according to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club (www.groundhog.org), established in 1887, the legend stems from the ancient customs of ethnic cultures that viewed nature as playing a strong role in daily life. Often, popular myths involved animals waking from hibernation on particular days. “The groundhog tradition stems from similar beliefs associated with Candlemas Day and the days of early Christians in Europe.” The ritual carried out on Feb. 2 involved a priest blessing and passing out candles to people to ward off the darkness of Winter. It later evolved with German settlers, many of whom populated Pennsylvania, picking up the tradition and varying it to include the integration of a hedgehog (eventually a groundhog) that predicted the continuation of Winter if the sun came out that day and the animal saw his shadow.
That slice of history details the past inclusion of a groundhog to foretell seasonal weather occurrences, but how did the chief player become “Punxsutawney Phil” in the 1800s—the frisky fellow who will surface at approximately 7:20 a.m. this year?
The first official Groundhog Day was celebrated in Punxsutawney in 1886 with a decree in The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper stating, “Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow.” The following year the first trek to Gobbler’s Knob was made.
Furthermore, according to the club, Phil is the one and only and is taken care of by an inner circle of members. He was named after King Philip, has visited presidents, supported politicians on the campaign trail, appeared at sporting events, guest-starred on the Oprah Winfrey show in the 1990s, and is even the subject of the popular Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day!”
Adding to the mystical allure, the club gives Phil a drink of a magical punch called “the elixir of life” during the Annual Groundhog Picnic each Summer to give him seven more years of life (a groundhog’s lifespan is usually six to eight years)—ensuring the ritual will continue forever.
If you want to witness Phil emerge from his simulated and heated tree trunk at Gobblers Knob on Groundhog Day, set your alarm clock to start the festivities off at 3 a.m. for the opening bonfire and commencement of activities. Just pray you don’t suffer the same fate of Bill Murray in the movie and wake up to a repeat of the same day over and over again.