Does Groundhog Day Have Christian Roots?

by Anne-Marie Welsh,

Bob Roberts, a member of Ss. Cosmas and Damian parish in Conshohocken, Pa., holds a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil in an undated photo in Punxsutawney, Pa.

ERIE, Pa. (CNS) – What could be more charming than a small town in Pennsylvania that throws its doors open to the world for a great big party each year in the deepest, darkest days of winter?

How about that it happens in the Diocese of Erie? Or that several members of Punxsutawney Phil’s world-renowned top-hatted Inner Circle are also members of Ss. Cosmas and Damian parish?

While Groundhog Day does have ties to Candlemas Day, a Catholic festival associated with honoring Mary and the presentation of Christ in the temple, it also has roots in pre-Christian folklore related to predicting weather for the coming year. (Poor weather on that day meant the end of winter was in sight and a good crop was likely.)

The first recorded report of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney was in 1886 when the local newspaper, the Spirit, mentioned that as of press time, the “beast” had not seen its shadow. (It would not make front-page news for another 18 years.)

A club was organized within a few years; annual summer picnics ensued, complete with – sorry to say – actual feasting on groundhog meat. Bit by bit the February event grew, first as a winter diversion for the locals, then the surrounding area, eventually to most of the state and beyond. Then came 1993.

That year director Harold Ramis produced a little film called “Groundhog Day.” It ranked 13th among films released that year and now is 34th on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 funniest movies.

Crowds swelled from several hundred to several thousand, and now regularly top out at more than 30,000 when the weather cooperates and the holiday falls anywhere near a weekend. Festivities begin the day before with banquets, dances like the “Shadow Swing,” bashes and a free showing of the movie in the local high school gym.

Then, in the wee hours of the morning – before the sun can actually cast a shadow cynics point out – the big moment arrives.

Tradition holds that if it is cloudy that day, Phil will emerge from his burrow, signaling that winter weather will soon end. If it is sunny and Phil emerges to see his shadow, he retreats into his burrow, meaning that the winter weather will continue for six more weeks.

Bob Roberts, a member of Ss. Cosmas and Damian parish who enjoys the title of Phil’s protector as a member of the Inner Circle, admits it’s the moments before the prognostication that he most looks forward to each year.

“Pulling the hog out of the burrow is a big deal,” he acknowledged, “but leading up to it is just such a nice time, filled with enthusiasm. They have the fireworks, we sing the National Anthem. And then we start the trek.” That’s what members call the walk through the crowd to knock on Phil’s burrow.

Generally a bit reticent, the rodent responds, nonetheless, and is lifted high before the crowd, which roars its raucous approval.

Media in town from around the world point their lights and cameras at the groundhog and his Inner Circle as Phil whispers his prognostication to his handler in “groundhogese.” Phil’s “comments” – Tweeted for the first time last year – are translated and proclaimed.

In an interview with Faith, Erie’s diocesan magazine, Roberts said it was a complete surprise when he was invited to join the Inner Circle.

“Groundhog Day was just starting to get bigger,” he recalled. “I had a couple of friends in the Inner Circle and they stopped by after a meeting and said I’d been nominated. They wanted to know if I would join. … I said, ‘OK.’ It was as simple as that.”