People are strange: Some thoughts on Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day has to be one of the absolute weirdest annual events that Americans look forward to each year.

In case you – like most groundhogs – are not acquainted with the reasoning (such as it is) behind this spectacle, the basic gist is that if the official groundhog sees his shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter; if not, spring will come early this year.

There are, of course, issues with this methodology.

For most groundhog enthusiasts, the official groundhog is undoubtedly Punxsutawney Phil, reporting from Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. (Cue inappropriate jokes.) Phil’s predictions aren’t always accurate, but he’s been the groundhog go-to for most of the U.S. since 1887. (Just ask Phil Connors.)

Of course for New Yorkers – who delight in being different – the official prognosticator is Staten Island Chuck. Chuck seems to have better insight into the mind of Mother Nature, as his accuracy in predictions is currently at 80%. Just don’t drop the little varmint, like Mayor de Blasio did in 2014… ouch!

But the real question is: why on earth would a groundhog seeing its shadow have any effect whatsoever on the weather? Especially in 2017, when we’ve got meteorologists who have much more scientific measurements and technology to do the job than a cranky, burrowing mammal who’d much rather be sleeping underground than informing a bunch of day-drinking humans about the state of the world’s changing climate?

And yes, Virginia, the climate is changing. Don’t let a bunch of windbag politicians tell you otherwise. Have you looked at the average temperatures across the country for the past five years? (NASA has; check it out.)

Ultimately, the concept of Groundhog Day is more about human traditions than weather forecasting. We goofy humans love a spectacle. And as our society continues to become more and more separated from nature, it seems only fitting that we seek to “connect” with nature in increasingly odd ways. For instance, the groundhog’s handlers have to wear protective gloves in order to force the creature out of its comfortable burrow and out into the enclosure where he will make his “prediction.” The groundhog himself might be grumpy, sleepy, or downright peeved about being prodded from hibernation to perform. Today, Phil was described as “feisty.”

Indeed, as NPR reports:

“His eponymous day seemed to sneak up on Phil, and despite more than an hour of loud music and the adoring shouts of human admirers that preceded the sunrise event, his handlers had to grapple with the groundhog so he could have his moment in the sun (or shade).”

Wouldn’t you be feisty if you had to get out of bed to attend to a bunch of noisy humans, when the rest of your winter is typically spent comfortably dozing in bed?

Furthermore, isn’t it strange that we refer to this creature as both a groundhog and a woodchuck? The same animal is considered both fortune-teller and industrious chucker of wood, but also a nuisance animal due to its incessant burrowing – not to mention its penchant for eating vegetables from people’s gardens.

Hell, doesn’t anyone else find it peculiar that two of Harold Ramis’ best-known movies (both, coincidentally, also featuring Bill Murray) are about the destructive influence of varmints? Caddyshack features mischievous gophers, while Groundhog Day spotlights this glorified marmot. In both films, no one can outwit these rodents, so human behavior must ultimately adapt to the natural world’s influence, rather than nature bending to man’s will. An important lesson for us to learn, still!

In the end, Groundhog Day (or Jour de la Marmotte, as it’s called in French, which sounds quite hilarious when said aloud) is just another excuse for us to ponder our existence, question our intelligence, and wonder why we continue to do the ridiculous things we do.

So… will there be six more weeks of winter? Phil says yes, but Chuck says no. How very apropos!

Additional Reading

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  • Roger Ebert’s review of the film, Groundhog Day, is insightful and will make you want to watch the movie again – if you don’t already watch it to celebrate, at the same time every year!
  • The Atlantic‘s piece on re-watching Groundhog Day, 20 years after its debut, explores the metaphysical (look it up)