Groundhogs, Germans, and the long human history of weather watching.
The groundhog festival seems to get bigger every year here in PA. I remember when there were only a few members of the “inner circle” with top hats, Victorian black coats and silly, fake aboriginal names like “Thunder Maker” and “Cloud Rider” up on that stage. This thing has really taken off since the “Groundhog Day” movie in 1993. The ever-growing numbers in the “inner circle” and flood of attendees prove that.
The custom comes here from German settlers, who, in the old country, may have looked for bears to awaken as a sign of spring. In southeastern PA, you can still find a few “Grundsow” Lodges, where for that morning only Pennsylvania Dutch is spoken. (Speak English there and receive a fine!) The dawn festival involves speeches, skits and traditional foods. I'd be willing to bet that the original was simply farmers checking out the critter’s burrow to see if he was out and about. If he was, the weather had probably been warm, and an early spring—a signal to get ready to plant--could be predicted.
Phil is now, according to Punxsutawney legend, 120 years old, but anyone can see he’s been recently replaced. His newest incarnation is a slender young groundhog who first appeared on stage a few years back. (His little nose was running this morning, and I'm a little worried about his health.)
He replaced an earlier, massively obese old fellow who probably came to the end of his decade-in-captivity life span. The older groundhog was far less human friendly, and did wonderfully entertaining things, like peeing on his handlers and sometimes chewing on their gloved hands. To me these acts of defiance were an important part of the show. After all, they’d dragged the poor critter out of his nice warm cage in town and brought him out in the middle of fireworks, flashing cameras, TV lights and a host of enthusiastic people (many of them, I’m sorry to report, drunk) screaming at the top of their lungs: “Phil-Phil-Phil!”
Heck, such treatment would unnerve anybody, not to mention a poor, overweight groundhog. Of course, not being eaten after being dragged out of your warm burrow is a definite improvement over the treatment many groundhogs received in the protein-starved winter past.
February 2 is also Candlemas on the Christian calendar, a/k/a the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. Besides that, in medieval times it was one of the “cross-quarter” days on which bills were paid, workers hired and contracts drawn, important in every long ago market town. Both the religious observance and the business deals go back even further, into pagan times. Even the most casual observer can see that the days are growing longer now, and of course, the ancients, who were formidable astronomers, had noticed. February 2, known as Imbolc in the Celtic calendar, was sacred to the red-haired Mother Goddess Bridget, who tended a magical cauldron, and was patroness of poetry, music, dance and all the “arts of civilization.” Weather prediction was part of her festival, too, as the time of the spring planting was of vital importance.