Weather and a groundhog are an odd mix

I'm guessing that most of the students at UAA are pretty tired of our strange winter weather and are thankful that spring is getting closer. Or is it? In Alaska, it's hard to tell when the snow and ice will disappear. But by the end of the week, we may have the answer to that question. Friday is Groundhog Day.

We have learned to split the atom, send people into the cosmos and surf around in cyberspace, yet Americans still look to a rodent named “Punxsutawney Phil” to tell us if winter is over. Annually, for over 100 years, we have waited to see if the sun will come out on Feb. 2, which means that Phil will see his shadow and we'll have six more weeks of wintry weather. How did we get hooked into watching for a groundhog's shadow?            

When German settlers arrived in America in the 1700s, they brought a tradition known as Candlemas Day that came at the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The clergy would bless candles and hand them out to the people. Also, according to superstition, if the sun came out on that day, an animal would cast a shadow, which meant that the second half of winter would be stormy and cold. The Germans first watched a badger for the shadow but later, in Pennsylvania, the groundhog, upon waking from mid-winter hibernation, was selected as the replacement.

The groundhog might actually be the best choice when one considers the area where this superstition grew. In 1723, the Delaware Indians settled Punxsutawney, Penn. The Delawares considered groundhogs to be honorable ancestors. According to the original creation beliefs of the Delaware Indians, their ancestors began life as animals in “Mother Earth” and emerged centuries later to hunt and live as men. The name woodchuck comes from the Indian legend of “Wojak, the groundhog,” which was considered to be their ancestral grandfather.

The earliest American reference to Groundhog Day has been found in a diary written by storekeeper James Morris from Morgantown, Berks County, Penn., dated Feb. 4, 1841. Morris wrote, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap.If the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

Pennsylvania's official celebration of Groundhog Day began on Feb. 2, 1886, with an announcement in the newspaper The Punxsutawney Spirit: “Today is Groundhog Day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow.” The groundhog was given the name “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.”

The current Phil weighs 15 pounds and thrives on dog food and ice cream in his climate-controlled home at the Punxsutawney Library, according to his handler Bill Deeley. The groundhog is placed in a heated burrow underneath a simulated tree stump on stage at Gobbler's Knob prior to Groundhog Day, when he is pulled out at 7:25 a.m. to make his prediction.

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Personally, I wouldn't put away my winter clothes and pull out my bikini if Phil doesn't see his shadow. You might end up with a severe case of frostbite since, in the past 115 years, Phil's winter predictions have only been correct 39 percent of the time.