This antique marmot, of 130 years of age, received his title in 1887 from the Punxsatawney Groundhog Club. That was around the same time the club appointed Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania to be the Weather Capitol of the World. The most popular version of the Groundhog Day story goes something like this:
The first observance of the holiday took place on February 2, 1886 because of a proclamation by the small Pennsylvania town’s newspaper editor. The editorial said, “Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press, the beast has not seen his shadow.”
According to legend, the first Groundhog Day visit to “Gobbler’s Knob” happened the next year by the intrepid groundhog hunters, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. Ever since that fateful day, thousands of Punxsutawney Phil’s fans have made the pilgrimage to Western Pennsylvania to witness Phil’s forecasting skill.
The main ceremony is one of the world’s very few early morning holiday rituals. Officials remove Phil from his simulated tree stump at 7:25 am each Groundhog Day. Television and Internet reporters broadcast the ceremony to the nation and much of the world. Traditionally, if Phil sees his own shadow, there will be another six weeks of cold winter weather. On the other hand, if the sky is cloudy, and Phil cannot see his shadow, the remaining winter weather will be moderate.
Not to be outdone, Canada began its own groundhog festival in the small south Ontario town of Wiarton. Wiarton Willie is the legendary rodent of Ontario. His story is odd, in a typically Canadian way.
A Wiarton resident, Mac McKenzie sent invitations to his friends for a Groundhog Day party. One of the invitations found its way to the Toronto Star newspaper. Evidently the reporter who was sent to cover the story met McKenzie and his party at a local bar. Supposedly, the reporter was disappointed that the gathering was not a big deal. In order for the reporter to justify the cost on his business expense account he needed a story for the newspaper.
McKenzie brought out his wife’s furry hat to the bar’s parking lot, scooped out a makeshift “burrow” in the snow and placed the hat part way into the hole. A photograph of McKenzie with the hat was printed in the next day’s edition of the Toronto Star. The next year, McKenzie planned a festival to entertain the townsfolk and the Canadian media.
As we might expect, Punxsutawney Phil and Wiarton Willie aren’t the only marmot mavins to hog the publicity. Some other North American towns feature their own celebrity critters.
General Beauregard Lee predicts the winter for Lilburn Georgia. Staten Island Chuck represents New York. Balzac Billy is the featured marmot in Alberta. Shubenacadie Sam lives in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. Brandon Bob calls Manitoba his home. That hotbed of groundhog partying, Ontario, also has Gary the Groundhog in Kleinburg.
This strange holiday is a holdover from immigrants who originated in north central Europe. Farmers of Germanic heritage traditionally observed badgers to know when to plant their crops. The people believed that badgers had the power to predict the arrival of spring weather. These Europeans who settled in Pennsylvania, retained the idea behind badger prediction but adopted groundhogs to oversee the prognosticating duties.