Today is Groundhog Day in the United States, one of those throwaway observations that gets some cute stories in the news about a rodent spotting its shadow and a handful of opportunistic sales events sandwiched in between MLK Day and Presidents’ Day. It’s ubiquitous enough to make it into the papers and the home page of your preferred search engine, but not significant enough to get a day off work.
I primarily remember Groundhog Day as a career-shadowing day for high school students. When I was in high school, I spent one “Groundhog Shadowing Day,” as the administration called it, shadowing a college history professor at the University of South Carolina-Aiken. I remember being overawed by the specificity of the historical research papers his college students were writing (in the way a first grader marvels at a fifth grader who writes an entire paragraph, not just one sentence), and chuckling to myself at his pro-gun control op-eds. Even back then I knew college professors were loopy.
The following year I had the opportunity to shadow my State representative, who I remember as having a rather red-cheeked appearance and jovial manner. I was still under the impression that politicians were somehow elevated beings, people possessed of occasional foibles and shortcomings, but ultimately intent on serving the public interest. Ah, yes—the naïveté of youth. I’ll never forget an energy lobbyist slapping him on the back and telling me, “I know Skipper will look out for us.” Indeed.
Otherwise, Groundhog Day doesn’t loom large in my mind other than as a fun Bill Murray movie in which he woos a beautiful South Carolinian, Andie MacDowell. Indeed, that film seems to have brought the holiday into the larger consciousness of Americans, as it had largely been a Mid-Atlantic—Pennsylvanian, really—observance up to that point.
What I’ve come to appreciate about Groundhog Day, however, is that it’s another example of what John Derbyshire calls “old, weird America“—the odd little regional and local customs that used to proliferate in the United States before mass media and big government homogenized the colorfulness of localism and variety into a grey, uniform mass. According to my rigorous research on Wikipedia, the holiday is based in an old Pennsylvania Dutch belief that if it’s a cloudy day on Candlemas, the groundhog won’t see his shadow, foretelling a swift arrival of spring. A clear day, however, means the critter spots his shadow and retreats to his burrow, portending six more weeks of winter.
The epicenter of the holiday is Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, home of the legendary Punxsutawney Phil, the official forecasting groundhog. Punxsutawney’s observance dates back to 1887, when the local newspaper popularized the legend and a group of townsfolk visited the groundhog on Gobbler’s Knob (even these names sound folksy and whimsical). Since then, the town has grown the furry forecasting tradition into a festival, attracting thousands of visitors every year.
Every little town has—or, at least, once had—something akin to Groundhog Day. Sure, maybe they don’t all involve an oddly pagan ritual of consulting with a ground rodent about the weather, but there are similarly strange but fun practices and holidays and festivals all over our country. My little town of Lamar hosts an annual event called The Egg Scramble Jamboree. Yemassee, South Carolina has the Shrimp Festival (I rather like the notion of a shrimp predicting the weather—if he’s boiled, spring’s a-comin’, but if he’s fried, it’s six more weeks of cholesterol). And each little local festival has its own history, its own intriguing origin story.
What other holidays are out there, waiting to be discovered? And are Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell available to make a fantasy-comedy movie called The Egg Scramble?
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