Gimme a smile: Happy Groundhog Day

Marmot in grass

Happy Groundhog Day! Did you get a card in the mail? Me neither. Groundhog Day is a mysterious holiday, virtually ignored by retailers and greeting card manufacturers, even as it is embraced by news media nationwide.

Groundhog Day takes place on Feb. 2, roughly halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox — right about the time that we’re getting bored with winter. Folk legend tells us that if a groundhog sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, then we will have six more weeks of winter. If, on the other hand, the weather is cloudy and the groundhog can’t see his shadow, then we’re in for an early spring.

How do we know if the groundhog sees his shadow or not? We see it on the news, of course. The news media are just as bored with winter as everyone else, so they flock in droves to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, ground zero for groundhog shadow sightings. Punxsutawney Phil is the nominal groundhog prophet who holds the snow-day hopes of millions of schoolchildren in his paws. He emerges from his Gobblers Knob burrow on Feb. 2 each year, to face a crowd of dignitaries wearing top hats, and a crush of paparazzi eager to document this momentous coming out ceremony. As cameras flash and jostling reporters call out questions, one has to wonder just how focused Phil is on his annual mission. Is he even looking for his shadow, or is he dazzled by all the media attention? Wouldn’t he always see his shadow (if he was looking for it) because of the floodlights and all the cameras encircling him? On a philosophical note, if the groundhog’s shadow falls in the morning but he doesn’t see it, does it make a sound? If Phil casts a shadow but doesn’t notice it, would it count, or would we have twelve more weeks of winter in that case? How good is a groundhog’s eyesight anyway? Can we really trust a rodent with the responsibility of forecasting the advent of spring?

Even more sobering, what happens if the groundhog doesn’t come out of his burrow at all on Groundhog Day? In the normal course of things, a groundhog would be hibernating through the winter, to reemerge in the spring. How can he see his shadow if he’s snoozing in the middle of his long winter’s nap? Poor Phil, he’s probably prodded out of his comfortable burrow and forced to parade in front of the cameras in a state of severe sleep deprivation.

Of course, this year Punxsutawney Phil might get a break from the ravages of the paparazzi, since the Super Bowl falls on Groundhog Day. It will be interesting to see who merits more media attention, a prophesying groundhog or a pair of rival quarterbacks. Wonder what happens if the quarterback sees his shadow during the third quarter of the game. Six more weeks of football? Or if he doesn’t see his shadow, does that mean an early start to spring training? Keep your eyes on the ball, guys!

For the home viewer, your challenge is to try to incorporate some aspects of Groundhog Day celebrations into your much-anticipated Super Bowl party. But what are the traditions we all hold dear on Groundhog Day? Luckily for Phil (as well as the rest of us) we don’t usually insist on a seasonal meal of roast groundhog and stuffing. We don’t tell groundhog jokes or fill baskets with candy and cute stuffed groundhogs for the little ones. I can’t remember the last time I got a card or gift for Groundhog Day. It’s a vast, untapped market. The major way the masses celebrate Groundhog Day is to watch a minute and a half news clip summarizing the auspicious event. Truth be told, Groundhog Day media coverage takes up about as much time as your average Super Bowl commercial.

In Alaska, Groundhog Day has been officially pre-empted by Marmot Day, since marmots and not groundhogs reside in Alaska. Thus we have the opportunity to “look local first” and celebrate our homegrown hero on this national day of wishful thinking. Move over, Punxsutawney Phil — Marty the Marmot coming through! If he lives in Juneau, we’re bound to have an early spring — what are the chances of seeing your shadow in Juneau?

Happy Groundhog, er, Marmot Day everyone!

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother and aspiring author who lives in Juneau. She likes to look at the bright side of life.


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