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Neighborhood Notes: Punxsutawney, PA – “Punxsutawney Phil: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated”

He has no weather radar, no weather maps, no wind speed meters, yet Punxsutawney Phil is the most famous weather prognosticator in the land. Others, like Staten Island Chuck from New York City, General Beauregard Lee from Lilburn, Georgia, and Buckeye Chuck from Marion, Ohio have tried to swipe some of Phil’s forecasting fame. Phil is an original. He is often imitated, but never duplicated.

Like the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, Phil is ensconced on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where, on each Groundhog Day, the “Seer of Seers” emerges from his burrow to predict when winter will end.

Groundhog Day had its origins in Europe and was probably brought to the United States by German immigrants. It is linked to the Christian feast of Candlemas. Groundhog Day is February 2, which is also Candlemas Day. Candlemas Day is 40 days from Christmas and celebrates Jesus’s Presentation in the Temple and Mary’s Purification. As was the Jewish custom, a woman who had given birth to a male child was prohibited from entering the temple until 40 days had passed. When Simeon, a devout man awaiting the arrival of the Messiah, saw the infant Jesus in the temple, he proclaimed that the Child would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Since candles provided the major source of light, it became the custom for people to bring candles to church to have them blessed at mass. Hence, the word Candlemas.

Candlemas also marks the mid-point of winter, and people long ago believedPunx Phil Pic that the weather on Candlemas Day predicted the weather for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if the Groundhog emerged on Candlemas Day and saw his shadow, that would mean six more weeks of winter. Conversely, if he emerged and did not see his shadow, spring was on its way.

There are many sayings and songs associated with Candlemas Day and weather. A German one harkens to a prognosticating badger.

The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day,

and, if he finds snow, walks abroad;

but if he sees the sun shining

he draws back into his hole.

When the Germans arrived in Western Pennsylvania, there weren’t that many badgers, but Penn’s Woods was crawling with groundhogs, and they adopted this fellow as their new weatherman.

Punxsutawney, which is located in Jefferson County 84 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, has been celebrating Groundhog Day since the 1800s. While som assume Punxsutawney means “groundhog,” it is actually an Indian word for the “sand-fly place.” In the early days, Phil gave his prediction in the privacy of the woods outside of Punxsutawney, but in 1887, the first official observance of Groundhog Day, Phil gave his prediction from his burrow on Gobbler’s Knob.

Phil is quite the mover and shaker. He traveled to the White House to meet President Reagan in 1986 and sat down with Oprah Winfrey in 1995. He is also a bit of a party  animal. During Prohibition, Phil threatened 60 weeks of winter if he wasn’t allowed a drink. Like all celebrities, Phil has an entourage, the Inner Circle, a group of local dignitaries who care for and feed him. They also accompany Phil when he travels and translate for him because he is only fluent in “Groundhogese.” In addition, the Inner Circle is responsible for planning each year’s Groundhog Day bash.

While those in Western Pennsylvania have known and loved Phil for many years, it wasn’t until the movie Groundhog Day was released in 1993 that Phil became a worldwide superstar. The movie featured Bill Murray as Phil Connors, an obnoxious wea
therman, who is sent to Punxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. Connors winds up in a time loop repeating the same day, Groundhog Day, over and over again. The movie became a classic comedy and the term ‘groundhog day’ has come to signify something that keeps happening over and over again.

A 1986 United Press International story for that year’s Groundhog Day reported that 2,500 would be on hand to watch Phil emerge from his burrow. After the movie was released, Phil became more popular than ever, and crowds have flocked to Punxsutawney ever since, swelling the enthusiasts to approximately 40,000 visitors a year. In accordance, Punxsutawney rolls out the welcome mat for those making the pilgrimage to Gobbler’s Knob and has a website that can advise you on how to plan your trip to visit Phil.

It’s not easy to gain access to the “Prognosticator of Prognosticators.” On Groundhog Day, the gate to Gobbler’s Knob opens at 3:00 a.m., and Phil usually emerges to greet his adoring, shivering fans and give his prediction around 7:25 a.m. For several days leading up to Phil’s proclamation, Punxsutawney hosts many celebratory events from Phil’s Phind Scavenger Hunt to the Crowning of Little Mr. & Miss Groundhog. In addition, the Inner Circle hosts its annual Groundhog Ball. You can also purchase Phil paraphernalia and souvenirs from hats to cookie cutters in the shops in town.

Phil works only one day out of the year, but who can blame him since he has been at his job for more than 125 years. There has only been one Phil, and he credits his longevity to drinking “the elixir of life,” a secret recipe, which he sips each summer at the Groundhog Picnic. While some celebrities often summer in the Hamptons, Phil, when he’s not at Gobbler’s Knob, spends his days in his second home, the burrow at the Punxsutawney Memorial Library.

Phil claims 100 percent accuracy, while others in the weather prediction business say it is nearer to 45 percent. But when you are sitting atop the weather predication heap, everyone is a critic. Like the star that he is, Phil pays his detractors no mind because he is too absorbed in doing what he does best: greeting fans, making weather predictions, and being the true star of Groundhog Day.

Written by Jan Palko

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