I begin by asking why is this day different than all others. That question in Jewish families, is the beginning of the Passover Seder. But if you have Celtic markers on your genomes, it is the beginning of Imm'ulk, the second quarter of the year. The first quarter is of course Sow'en – November through January – followed by Imm'ulk, then Bell'tan – May through July - and Loo'nassa – August through October. For some reason that is not the way they are currently spelled in English, but it is the way the Irish and Welsh pronounced them - approximately. As you might have noticed these is a pagan calendar, the way the ancient Celts marked time, and Imm'ulk was the season the female sheep start to drip milk from their teats. And, no, that is not why one of them is called a 'Yeww”. .
Lactating sheep may seem like a rotten reason to have a holiday, unless you are heavily invested in lamb futures, or, if sheep or goat milk makes up a large part of your children's protein intake. The word Imm'ulk in old Irish means “in the belly”, as in baby lambs, or goat kids. And that brings up the Celtic lady of fertility, Bree-id – again the phonetic spelling. The people of the pre-Christian British Isles, and particularly the center of the Bree-in cult around Kikdare, Ireland, felt the need to invoke a Goddess because the sheep drip seemed to begin about halfway between the Winter Solstice (December 22) and the Spring Equinox (March 21st), and a thousand years ago that seemed a magical and mystical event. Today we know its just a little nut of coincidence, the product of the Earth's 365 and ¼ day elliptical orbit around the sun and its 23 degree angle of tilt. Change either of those numbers and you get a different coincidence.
In her yearbook – if she had one - Bree-id would have listed her interests as biology, poetry and heavy metal. Believe it or not, that made her a pacifist among the otherwise violent and argumentative Celtic gods, thus her association with fertility. When the Romans arrived they recorded her name as Brighid – which seems to be where the word “bride” came from - again fertility. The Christians faced a harder problem converting the Celts of Scotland, in part because they still had snakes. Their fertility spirit was Cailleach, a shape shifter, AKA a hag. An ancient Scottish proverb says, “The serpent will come from the hole, On the brown Day of Bride, Though there should be three feet of snow, On the flat surface of the ground.” The Scots would not scan a good poet until Robert Burns in the 18th century.
The Scots told their children that on the first day of Imm'ulk the hag would go out to gather firewood for the rest of the winter. And since she also controlled the weather, if Caileach made the sun shine that day, it meant she was trying to gather lots of wood, which meant winter was going to last another month and a half or so. But if it was cloudy on the first day of Imm'ulk, then Caileach was planning on an early spring and she would not need sunlight for her search. In other words, if the old hag saw her shadow, it would be six more weeks of winter. And if that sounds familiar to you, its because that is the straight line, the set up to a joke retold year after year. Allow me to explain:
The Christians later co-opted the Irish goddess as Saint Brighid, spinning the story that she was the mother of St. Patrick, who drove the snakes out of Ireland. They just made that up of course, and later dropped her as a saint, but then they made up the part about the snakes and Saint Patrick too. But because the Romans recruited both Irish and Scottish Celt's as soldiers and used them on the Rhine River frontier, the blended legends of Brigid and Caileach became embedded in Germany. And because their German ancestors later became coal miners, and because the miners' ancestors later moved to America, drawn by jobs in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, where, for some reason, the Germans were called “Dutchmen”, that is how Irish ewes dripping milk from their teats, and an ugly old Scottish woman scrounging for firewood, combined to produce a local German immigrant festival celebrating the largest rodent in North America – Ground Hog Day.
See, a ground hog is a rodent, but its not a rat. They are much closer to a squirrel in need of weight watchers. And, without the expressive tails. This 4 to 9 pound animal, is actually a marmot. There are marmots living among the rocks and mountains of South Africa, and the Middle East, and central Europe, and along the foothills of the Himalayas. The ones living in North America are actually some of the smallest marmots anywhere, in part because living on flat ground, they are surrounded by foxes, wolves, coyotes, bears and hawks and eagles – all of whom find groundhogs very tasty. On the treeless great plains, they evolved into prairie dogs. And back east, they became groundhogs – grass eaters all. Look at it this way; if God were a rodent, cows would look more like ground hogs.
This plump, furry, generally irritated little beast is known by a number of nom-de-rodents. They sequel when injured and whistle to warn their mates (Ground hogs and Whistle-pigs), and the native Americans called them “wuchak” (woodchucks). They hibernate over winter below the frost line, emerging from their extensive Chateau marmots only in the spring. And since they don't have calendars, they respond to changing temperatures. When their dens warm up, they wake up and go looking for something green to eat. Any brief respite in winter like, say, around the end of January or early February, might draw some of the hungrier ground hogs to look for take out. If it is an early spring, they get a jump on their fellows at early mating. If not, if its a normal or late spring, they become fuel, keeping hungry predators alive until real spring finally shows up - thus proving that individuality is an adaptation for the survival of the species, just not necessarily the species your in.
As far back as 1841 a local storekeeper in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania named James Morris had noted in his diary, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd... 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, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as weather is to be moderate.” Again, that's the set up. The guy who delivered the punch line we are seeking was a local funny boy, a bachelor with a quick wit and the good German name of Clymer H. Freas. Clymer had been raised by his older brother, and after graduating from a local collage, he got a job working at the Punxsutawney Spirit, the only newspaper the town of Punxsutawney has ever had.
For decades, Punxsutawney, halfway between the Allegheny and Susquehanna rivers, had been a local center of the first great American pastime – guns, beer and shooting things. In this case the “things” were ground hogs, and the beer was referred to as “ground hog punch”. And after shooting the whistle pigs, the celebrants then barbecued and ate them. Surprisingly, spending a cold morning killing a large rodent did not catch on with the Pennsylvania womenfolk, but then I suspect they were not invited. But after the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad began regular service into town in 1883, lots of men from Pittsburgh began to journey the ninety miles to tramp through the woods around Punxsutawney, blasting away at the large non-aquatic beavers, while getting blasted themselves. The town, evidently, needed the attraction, since in the language of the Delaware Indians, Puixsutawney actually means “Town of mosquitoes”.
Young Clymer evidently did not participate in these festivities, because in February of 1886, he first mentioned Ground hog Day in the “Spirit” by merely noting, “up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen his shadow." However, next year the 22 year old Clymer was invited to his first ground hog soiree at the “hunting lodge” up on Gobbler's Knob, about a mile southeast of town. He had so much fun that two years later he was one of the founding fathers of the Groundhog Club, elected Secretary and poet laureate.
As poet he waxed lyrical about the 1907 GHD; “Promptly at 12:22 O'Clock...a rift was riven in the overhanging clouds and B're Groundhog sallied forth, casting a shadow which shot through a shimmering sheen and sent a shaft of effervescent and effulgent rays...”. Clymer went into more depth describing the speeches given later at the barbecue as “eulogizing the flesh of the only Simon-pure vegetarian on this planet, and each, under the subtle influence of partaken woodchuck and assimilated punch, grew eloquent and combed the earth sea and sky with metaphor and simile, couched in the most beautiful phraseology.” That particular celebration continued past one in the morning. Not a bad punchline.
However the ladies and children must have complained, because in 1909, they held what Clymer described as a “Circumgyratory Pageant of the Astrologers, Horocopists, Magicians, Soothsayers and meteorological Attaches”, also known as a parade. It had floats representing the four seasons and because you would have be drunk to stand outside in the dead of winter, they held it in August, and called it “Old Home Week”. But because there was a lot less drinking, and no groundhogs to justify the thing, it did not catch on.
By now Clymer was editor of the paper, and the groundhog day celebrations and his joke had begun filling hotel rooms and restaurants. It was now a serious matter, and as editor Clymer was expected to be a civic booster. It was around now that the groundhog became the town's official symbol, and Clymer named him “Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinaire.” They stopped shooting the rodents (officially), and concentrated on the ridicules legend. But they would have to continue without their poet. In the teens, Bachelor Clymer married Miss Moss Rose Wall. And after that, as a man with responsibilities, he decided to put his skills for hyperbole to a job with more financial remuneration than that offered to a newspaperman and poet laureate. He abandoned Puxsutawney and its mid-winter freezing rodent festival, and moved to balmy Florida where he switched to selling swampland around Tampa. He died there in 1942.
But his work was done. The punch line for the joke had been written down, the dirty words removed, the telling civilized so as to render the joke acceptable to women and children. It didn't happen overnight, of course. In 1920, the first year of prohibition, Phil supposedly threatened not to offer another prediction for 60 weeks, unless he was given a drink. He was not, but he went right on predicting. A mere 37% accuracy rate (not much better than sheer chance) has so far failed to kill the joke, but it now barely elicits a chuckle, but that will not kill it either. Besides, how much chuckle would a woodchuck chuckle, if a woodchuck could chuckle a chuck? That doesn't seem to matter, either.
The little town never had more than 10,000 residents, and after the mines closed, today it has barely 6,000. Still it is held together by a rodent. In the gift shop down at 102 West Mahoning Street, they sell “Gobbler's Knob Hot Chocolate Mix”, which you can drink from your “Amazink Shadow Mug”, featuring a “Punxsy Phil” and his shadow, which disappears when hot water fills the mug You can also buy Punxsy Phil Mardi Gras beads, and "Punxsutawney Phil in a Can." (above). Pull the pop top and a little plush Phil pops out, holding one of two signs predicting 6 more weeks of winter or not. You even buy a bag of Ground Hog Poop - actually its malted milk balls, but the kids love it.
You can head south on Highway 36, turn right on Woodlawn Avenue for about a mile to the crest of the hill, to Gobblers Knob. If you go there any day of the year other than Groundhog day you will likely find it abandoned, a empty stage set. The star resides year round downtown, in Barlay Square, at the memorial library, in his newly labeled Phil's Den, complete with below ground level window viewing. Human beings traveling hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles just to see a marmot sleep is the real joke. And that is funny. Everybody should do it at least once.