Saturday, June 15, 2024

Shadow Forecasting – Spring? Or Winter?



Falling midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, February 2nd has been marked by both ancient and modern traditions.  When German immigrants settled Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought the custom of pronouncing the day sunny only if badgers and other small animals glimpsed their own shadows,    with them choosing the native groundhog as the annual forecaster.

First Groundhog Day celebration took place on February 2nd, 1887, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It was the brainchild of local newspaper editor Clymer Freas, who sold a group of businessmen and groundhog hunters—known collectively as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club—on the idea.

The men trekked to a site called Gobbler’s Knob, where the inaugural groundhog became the bearer of bad news when he saw his shadow.

Nowadays, the yearly festivities in Punxsutawney are presided over by a band of local dignitaries known as the Inner Circle. Its members wear top hats and conduct the official proceedings in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. (They supposedly speak to the groundhog in “Groundhogese.”)

Every February 2nd, tens of thousands of spectators attend Groundhog Day events in Punxsutawney, a borough that’s home to some 6,000 people. It was immortalized in the 1993 film Groundhog Day, which was actually shot in Woodstock, Illinois.

How Accurate Are Groundhogs?  Studies by the National Climatic Data Center and the Canadian weather service have yielded a dismal success rate of around 50% for Punxsutawney Phil.  Staten Island Chuck, on the other hand, is reportedly accurate almost 80% of the time.

In 1981, Charles G. Hogg, better known as “Chuck,” began his rise as the groundhog soothsayer of Staten Island Zoo, New York. Although Chuck is not as well-known as his rival in Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney Phil, Chuck gained notoriety in 2009 when he bit New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg on the finger during the city’s Groundhog Day event. As New York’s only genuine groundhog, Chuck resides in relative luxury with his own cabin at the zoo. Each February 2nd, the mayor hoists Chuck out of his cabin to obtain a weather forecast. Like other celebrity groundhogs, Chuck maintains his own Twitter account in order to interact with fans.

Not to be outdone by us Yankees, Southerners have General Beauregard Lee.  As befits a groundhog with two honorary doctoral degrees and a commendation from the National Weather Service, General Beauregard Lee (or “Beau,” as he’s known to friends) lives in the lap of luxury near Atlanta, Georgia. His plantation at the Yellow River Game Ranch includes a miniature white-columned southern mansion complete with its own verandah, an architectural water fountain and a satellite dish. Since at least 1988, when he appeared on a nationally televised weather segment, Beau has been the go-to groundhog forecaster for the southeastern seaboard. He opens his “groundhog hotline” at 6:00 a.m. every February 2nd so that anxious fans around the globe may receive his prediction by telephone.

It’s not a weather prediction, but it is one hell of a party.  Fifty years ago, students of the University of Dallas, Texas, chose Groundhog Day as their official school holiday. While they don’t have an actual groundhog or make weather predictions, they are known for throwing a swell party. Simply called “Groundhog,” the celebratory weekend festival culminates with a party in the aptly named Groundhog Park and features live bands, food and beer. The school’s official mascot is the Crusader, but the unofficial Groundhog mascot is arguably more popular. The University of Dallas Groundhog celebration is thought to be the second-largest in the United States, after the Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, event. In fact, the festivities aren’t limited to the Dallas campus: Alumni take the party on the road by hosting celebrations in their own hometowns.

And who was first out of the burrow?  The earliest predictor: Shubencadie Sam.  By virtue of living east of every other celebrity groundhog in North America, Nova Scotia native Sam, a resident of Shubencadie Provincial Wildlife Park in Canada, takes the prize as the earliest to issue a Groundhog Day prediction regarding whether spring will come early or late. Unlike some other celebrity groundhogs with fancy homes, Sam lives in a relatively rustic hollowed-out log. Despite his humble lifestyle Sam boasts a large Twitter following, and fans around the globe follow his every move on a live webcam. On February 2nd, a bagpiper and town crier will attempt to coax Sam from his log house to issue a weather forecast. Should Sam venture forth, his prediction will be the first to herald our winter fate.


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