Did you ever wonder what the connection is between the critter shown in this photograph (which I took in my front yard last spring), and the weather prediction about how much winter is left in a year? The connection is that this critter---known as a "groundhog"---is one of a group of rodent ground squirrels (called "marmots" in some locations) that goes into true hibernation during cold temperatures. The length of time it remains in hibernation is determined by the climate of the location where the groundhog lives. Likewise the size a groundhog achieves is determined by the number of predators (such as owls, snakes, human beings) that are within its habitat. The gray hair shown in this photo does not indicate that this is an "elder" groundhog. Rather, groundhogs have two layers of fur, one of which is a gray color. This characteristic is responsible for the "frosted" appearance of the fur of many groundhogs.
The stance of the groundhog in this photo is a common one, as you will often see them standing, nearly motionless, on their hind feet, watching for danger. Groundhogs are mainly found in North America, and the earliest recorded date of someone in the U.S. predicting the weather on the basis of a groundhog's activity is February 5, 1841. The basis they used for the prediction was that if the groundhog emerged from its burrow during its hibernation period, and saw its shadow, it went back down into the burrow and continued to hibernate (observers took this to mean there would be six more weeks of winter). However, if the groundhog emerged from its burrow during its hibernation period, and did not see its shadow, (i.e. the sky was cloudy), it will leave its burrow. This is interpreted as meaning winter will end soon. Some early pioneer in the U.S., probably suffering from a bad case of "cabin fever", decided to turn this characteristic of the groundhog into an annual ritual, and declare it as "Groundhog Day"! February 2 is the official "Groundhog Day" in the United States.
The earliest of these Groundhog Day Celebrations took place in Pennsylvania, particularly among the Amish. The Amish---many of which had a German heritage---may have had a similar natural phenomena in their country that indicated climate conditions. However, the hibernating animal was a bear, and not a groundhog, in Germany. There is historical data indicating celebrations were held to commemorate a bear coming out of hibernation, and hence the end of winter. One of the most famous and earliest Groundhog Day Celebrations has been taking place annually, for years, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It was this celebration that was the basis of the movie "Groundhog Day". What you may NOT know, however, is that most of the town scenes for the movie were not actually filmed in Punxsutawney, rather, they were filmed in the small town of Woodstock, Illinois, in McHenry County, just a short drive northwest of Chicago. I had the opportunity to visit the quaint little town last fall, and took this photo of their lovely courthouse, which is shown in numerous movie scenes.
This distinctive-looking building is the town's Opera House, but in the movie, it was transformed into the "Pennsylvania Hotel", and it, too, is visible in numerous scenes of the movie. Not surprisingly, all the activity of filming a major movie, brought lots of publicity to Woodstock, and they have capitalized on it, by starting their very own week-long celebration of "Ground Hog Day", which includes special meals, pageants, and walking tours, that will take you to various locations throughout the village where movie scenes were filmed. And of course, the movie is played in the town's theater during the celebration, over and over and over again! You can plan YOUR Ground Hog Day expedition to this lovely place by visiting http://www.woodstockgroundhog.org/ or http://www.visitmchenrycounty.com/
I have to be honest and confess that eighteen years ago, I did not see the moral lesson that the Groundhog movie teaches. But visiting Woodstock renewed my interest in the movie, such that I was reading a description of it in Wikipedia. Wikipedia points out that the TV weatherman character (Bill Murray) must live the same day over and over again until he can learn to give up his selfishness and become a better person. The authors state that is why the phrase "Groundhog Day" has ALSO come to represent going through a phenomena over and over, until one spiritually transcends it. In fact, this pop culture definition of "Groundhog Day" is the same principle that is the mission statement of the church I attend: "Turning Self-Followers into Christ Followers, One Step, One Life at a Time." (http://www.myfbcmh.com/ ) The Wikipedia article, plus a second viewing of the movie after many years of seeing it for the first time, led me to realize that the theme of the movie could have been taken straight out of the third chapter of James in the Bible! The Message paraphrases those verses to say it this way: "Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It's the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts." So get out there and take a "Groundhog Day" Expedition every day of your life!! Miles of smiles! Tricia