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When you give a groundhog a responsibility



This week in “Humans do strange things seemingly without reason,” Groundhog Day was celebrated for the 132nd time. On Saturday, Feb. 2, the CBC reported that Wiarton Willie did not see his shadow when he emerged from his burrow in Wiarton, Ontario, meaning that spring temperatures will soon be on the way. But Shubenacadie Sam of Nova Scotia saw his shadow — a sure sign that winter temperatures will continue.

And Punxsutawney Phil, the original groundhog, saw his shadow: spring temperatures are coming early to Pennsylvania! You know, as long as you put stock in the actions of a groundhog and don’t take into account that the weather that day has anything to do with it or consider how a rodent in Pennsylvania predicts the weather for all of North America.

Before we ask the question of why we still look to a furry rodent to predict the coming weather by use of his shadow, let’s look at how this strange tradition started.

According to HuffPost, the first celebrated Groundhog Day dates back to 1887. Why the people of Pennsylvania decided a groundhog was an accurate way to forecast the coming weather is unclear, but the practice likely stems from European lore stating that a sacred bear or badger predicts the weather. It also shares a date with Candlemas, which celebrates the ritual purification of Mary and the day she presented Jesus to God at the Temple of Jerusalem. How or if these two practices are linked is also unclear.

So many questions arise from Groundhog Day. Does it have to be a special groundhog, or can it be any old guy? Clearly, they don’t need to use the same one, despite stating that they do (a groundhog’s lifespan is about six years — Punxsutawney Phil has apparently been predicting the weather for over 130 years, due to a magic elixir he drinks every summer), but how do they select the new groundhog if they need to? I imagine there must be a swearing-in ceremony where he promises to do his job to the best of his abilities.

More importantly, why do we, as a society, continue traditions that have been around for hundreds of years and don’t serve a purpose in modern day? It might be because we’ve always done it this way and haven’t yet managed to break away from something that doesn’t serve us in the present day (see: daylight savings time), or it might be because it’s shifted to somewhat of a cult following, something you do for fun on a frigid February morning.

I think it’s a bit of both. Wherever there’s a groundhog predicting the weather, there’s a ceremony complete with fancy dress, a stage for the groundhog in question to stand on, and live music. It’s turned into a big production, and from the looks of it, everyone’s having a good time. It doesn’t matter that Punxsutawney Phil has only been correct for 39 per cent of his predictions.

Yesterday, Phil and the rest of the groundhogs made their predictions. But today, I’m watching the wind whip snowflakes around outside my window. It’s negative two degrees, and it’s going to be colder tomorrow. I think the weather will do what it wants, despite what the groundhogs say will happen.

Image: Elyssa English/The Cascade

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