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Today is Groundhog Day: Understand the bizarre history of weather forecasting in the United States

Every year on February 2nd, Americans living in the cold northern states look forward to the strange ritual of Phil the groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. If the friendly rodent leaves the burrow where it was hibernating without seeing its own shadow, it means that spring will soon arrive. If it’s the opposite, it’s a sign that there will be another six weeks of winter ahead. And if the forecast doesn’t work out, it’s the meteorologist’s fault, of course.

It’s a quirky (and cute) moment of this time of year. But how did Groundhog Day, or Groundhog Day in English, go from an eccentric local tradition to a fun annual celebration, even for those who don’t even care about winter?

We explore the origins of Groundhog Day and right away we’re spoiled: this story contains badgers, immortality, and at least one groundhog in the pot.

On the second of February, members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club walk to Gobbler’s Knob, Phil’s official home, in a neighborhood on the outskirts of the town of Punxsutawney. Wearing top hats and tuxedos, the men in the group wait for the groundhog to leave its burrow and watch its movements to know what to expect from the weather.

The first Groundhog Day seeds we know today were planted thousands of years ago, according to Dan Yoder, a folklorist “born and raised in the Groundhog Country of Central Pennsylvania,” who wrote the history of the popular holiday that became a national tradition.

The date has evolved over centuries, celebrated from Celts and Germans in the Middle Ages, to Dutch Pennsylvania and then to other parts of the USA.

Its evolution began in the pre-Christian era of Western Europe, when the Celtic world was the predominant cultural force in the region. The Celts not only worshiped the solstices, but four dates – similar to those we use today to demarcate the seasons – which were the “turning points” of the year. One was February 10th.

The “turning dates” were not affected by the arrival of Christian beliefs on the European continent. May 10th became a public holiday, November 10th became All Saints’ Day, and the February 10th celebration was pushed to the next day – giving rise to Groundhog Day in the US.

The February holiday was initially known as “Candlemas”, a day when Christians took candles to be blessed in temples – symbolizing a source of light and warmth for winter.

The other three “turning points” remained “weather-important” dates, indicating changes in the seasons, wrote Dan Yoder.

At a time when agriculture was the biggest – if not the only – economic activity in the region, predicting the weather became an essential ritual for the health of cultures and city dwellers.

There was also a certain mysticism attached to the holiday, as can be seen in a 1678 poem by the naturalist John Ray:

“If the day of Candlemas is clean and clear,

Winter will take another flight

If the day of Candlemas is gloomy and rainy,

Winter is gone and will not return.”

Weather forecasting with the help of an animal began to be done with the arrival of Germans in parts of Europe previously populated by Celtic people. It’s just that the Germans, who brought their own beliefs to the holiday, used a badger instead of a marmot.

An ancient European encyclopedia quoted by Yoder cites the German badger as the “prophet of the time of Candlemas”, although it is not clear why. Sources including the state of Pennsylvania and the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club say that Germans have also considered hedgehogs to be predictors of the new season.

When the holiday crossed the ocean and arrived in Pennsylvania with the Dutch, the badger was exchanged for an American marmot, equally shy and subterranean, as well as more common in the area where they settled.

Many sources claim that the original Groundhog Day occurred in 1887, when the residents of Punxsutawney took to using the Gobbler’s Knob hole known as Phil’s “official” home.

But the first evidence Yoder found of townspeople relying on a groundhog for weather forecasting, written in a diary, dates from the 1840s. Since Dutch immigrants from Pennsylvania arrived mainly in the mid-18th century, it is likely that the holiday has existed for decades before record, according to the Library of Congress.

Phil’s Journey to Stardom

Part of the reason why so many of us know about Groundhog Day is due to the movie “Groundhog Day”, “Groundhog Day” in English, a 1993 comedy directed by Harold Hamis and starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.

The phrase “groundhog day” has even become an expression to describe that feeling of déjà vu when you relive the same situation over and over again (or days, as in the movie). But Phil became a celebrity even before the film hit the screens: in 1960 he appeared on the TV show “Today”, according to “The York Daily Record”, and visited the White House in 1986. He even charmed host Oprah Winfrey, appearing on his show in 1995, was already incensed by the film’s success.

Before he was a celebrity, however, he was simply the holiday luncheon dish. In a terrible twist, the early 19th century Groundhog Days involved devouring poor Phil after he made his prediction.

As Yoder tells it, 1887 was the year of the “Groundhog Picnic”. Pennsylvania historian Christopher Davis wrote that locals cooked groundhog as a “special local dish” served at the Punxsutawney Elk Lodge, whose members would later create the town’s Groundhog Club. Diners loved the “very tender meat” of the animal, according to Davis.

The marmot dropped from Punxsutawney’s menu once locals realized its value. In the 1960s, Phil was officially named after a certain “King Phillip,” according to the Groundhog Club.

The Mental Floss website reports that for centuries there was no King Phillip or Philip in Germany, where many Pennsylvania settlers came from. Before that, he was simply the “groundhog brother”. Phil’s popularity has inspired several imitators: there’s the Staten Island Chuck in New York, the Pierre C. Shadeaux of Louisiana, and Thistle, the Whistle Pig of Ohio, all animals with alleged weather forecasting abilities. But there’s only one Phil, and he’s the original.

The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club reinforces the legend by claiming that “there has only been one Phil” since 1886, as he would receive an “elixir of life” every year at the Groundhog Summertime picnic, which “magically gives him seven more years of life”.

In time: in fact, marmots can live up to six years in the wild and up to 14 in captivity, according to PBS, a network of American community broadcasters.

Phil doesn’t have to spend the rest of the year alone either. He is married to Phyliss, according to the Groundhog Club, who, however, is not given the same elixir to live forever as her husband. There is no official word on how many wives Phil has had over the years.

Phil often sees his shadow and announces colder weather (not spring) – this has happened 107 times, according to the York Daily Record, which has analyzed every one of Phil’s official weather forecasts since the 19th century. past, Phil saw his shadow, which coincided with a huge winter storm.

Source: CNN Brasil

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