King Groundhog: The Origins of Groundhog Day

By I.M.Knosp

A bonfire burns, dances are danced, songs are sung, hot food and warm drinks populate the hands of many as they wait for the seer of seers, the prophet of prophets, the prognosticator of prognosticators. In anticipation the people crowd around and chant the seer’s name, effigies and writings pepper the crowd, with eager anticipation they assemble around the ceremonial stump. The caretakers and most trusted of the seer stand around in formal wear, their leader with his magical cane standing proud. Then…. silence coats the celebration. As a speech is given, scrolls are procured and the stump is tapped with the cane. Then they reach inside to present the immortal king of all weather prophets, lifted high to the sky to his adoring followers whiskers, winter weight, and wide eyed. Is a Groundhog.

This is no ordinary groundhog though, this is ‘The’ Punxsutawney Phil the one true prophet groundhog. Or so he claims. Octoraro Orphie supposedly has called Phil a sell out, while Punxsutawney has labeled Orphie and his home of Quarryville, upstarts. Which is before additional “upstarts” such as Confederate General Beauregard Lee in Georgia who waddles out of his southern mansion as if to address the people like a noble lord of old and deliver his prophecy. There are even more “pretenders” to the throne of the prophet groundhog such as Wiarton Willie in Canada, the only Albino prophet groundhog. Or Jimmy in Sun Prairie, Staten Island Chuck, Dixie Dan, Buckeye Chuck, Ridge Lea Larry, Connecticut Chuckles , and many many more spread across North America. Each one greeting their adoring fans on Groundhog Day to answer with their oracular gifts, the question on all of their minds. Will there be an early spring?

Yet of all these Groundhog prophets it is arguably none of them that holds this true title, The Groundhog itself is considered far older. While Punxsutawney Phil is immortal, The Groundhog itself is eternal. The only true seer as proclaimed by Mother Earth herself, emerging from the primeval storm, controlling the weather and possessing the gift of prophecy. Punxsutawney Phil whose fame has grown so much as to become synonymous with the holiday itself has even been “hung” in some plays at Groundhog Lodges places where followers of The Groundhog pledge themselves to him as “Baby Groundhogs”. It is here Phil was hung for being a pretender to this powerful entity. In this way none of the Groundhog prophets are “The Groundhog” itself. Yet instead they act more as the Oracles of Apollo once did. Proclaiming in place of the godlike being that is The Groundhog as the Oracles once did for Apollo. Carrying messages through their burrows connecting to other realms through their many tunnels. These messengers of the gods carry the truth before the people across the North American continent, with Phil taking the role of the most popular much like the Oracle of Delphi once did in the days of legend. In this sacred duty they carry on their charge before adoring fans. Yet it was not always this way. Long before it became a household name, long before Deitsch men in hunters outfit consumed the flesh of their totemic animal, before the Mayflower touched the beaches of North America, before the Holy Roman Empire fell, before Herman defeated legions of Rome, there was an animal who held such sway in Europe and its form was just as round and brown as The Groundhog.

That animal was The Bear. An animal so important to Europeans before the spread of Christianity that the Church had to attempt to wipe it out for fear of competition. The Bear was said to be a god in physical form and have many of the powers that The Groundhog now possesses. After The Bear had been extirpated from much of the Church’s lands, it was to other hibernating animals that these same traditions then passed to. The Hedgehog was one such animal, but to the ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch it was at the Badger’s feet the torch of tradition was passed. The animal predicted the weather when it left its burrow at the Quarter Month period between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. A time that combined with Celtic Imbolc traditions and Christian Candlemas traditions to eventually transmogrify into what we call Groundhog Day. For as the Germanic settlers of the Deitsch nation crossed the Atlantic carrying old traditions from before the conquest of Rome, from the time of Catholicism and the time of the Protestant Reformation. Here it was not back to a bear that the honor fell, nor at the feet of the American Badger but to a small rodent. An animal whose original scientific name of Arctomys Monax translated loosely to, Rodent-Bear. It was in this pint size ursine impostor that the spirit of the tradition would continue. Long after Imbolc was a historical memory, and Candlemas faded from common memory on these shores. The Groundhog would reign supreme, a god amongst men.

As the farmers and villagers of the Deitsch nation grew and spread their culture the belief in The Groundhog grew and spread with them. Even the pious Amish found themselves retaining The Groundhog in their traditions. He became grander and was embodied in the groundhogs who burrowed in the farm fields, and frolicked and feasted upon wild clover. Each one of them both The Groundhog and not The Groundhog. He became the lord of weather and bit by bit this animal was recognized as godlike becoming the totemic animal of the Pennsylvania Dutch rivaled only by the distlefink in this place of honor. As the holiday grew an entire week in Punxsutawney enveloped the celebration as Old Home Week, which featured a celebration of the town of Punxsutawney which had become “The Weather Capitol of the World”. With the now world famous Punxsutawney Phil as the focal point of the whole celebration. Weather and season symbolism was rife in this week long cavalcade culminating in the slumbering prophet greeting his adoring cult of followers. Yet it was not always such a celebration. Before the grand parades and fanfare were humble beginnings in Pennsylvania. As a fraternity of men would hunt and consume The Groundhog.

Rather than top hats and suits it was in traditional groundhog hunting uniforms that the now well known inner circle of Phil would celebrate. Only a few men outside of the circle and perhaps some visiting dignitary would arrive at the field of the hunt. Often consuming Groundhog flesh in a stew, or roasted, a taste which some describe as “heavenly” while others warn of it as being too “greasy”. Yet this continuation of ancient tradition with the bear-rodent would eventually become the celebration now renowned across the globe.

Bit by bit, little by little, The Groundhog would win the hearts of America and Canada and become a household name beside Mother Earth, Jack Frost, and Old Man Winter. In 1952 the hunter outfits were swapped for the suits and top hats, his hunters had become his honor guard. Gobblers Knob had gone from a field to a veritable throne and he had become almost as famous as The Groundhog itself. Though The Groundhog’s roots were not with Phil, no, Phil had spawned from the older lore of The Groundhog itself, and at least within the Pennsylvania Dutch he would not subsume it.

While Phil’s Inner Circle would dress in formal wear, his most notable rival Octoraro Orphie would find his Quarryville group adorned in a night shirt and top hat. This represented the slumbering Groundhog this attire being one of the defining differences of the Quarryville celebrators when compared to Punxsutawney. While many other towns have spawned Groundhog Day celebrations it is between Quarryville and Punxsutawney that the true rivalry has been formed. Orphie’s group had arisen after Phil’s, when some Deitsch men had met to discuss Groundhog lore and decided to start their own celebration. Which grew and grew into what is now, alongside Punxsutawney’s revelry an exemplary spectacle of Groundhogism. The Inner Circles and members of the respective Groundhog Lodges of the Deitsch would take nicknames upon themselves with Phil’s inner circle taking names such as Iceman, Thunder Conductor, Stump-Warden, and Cold Front. While Orphie’s took an even more playful crack at epithets: Guardian Against False Weather Forecasters, Bifocal Shadow Gazer, Dr. of Arctomys Physics, and Superintendent of Mediocre Entertainment, among others. Each serving a role as keepers of the Godhead.

These clubs hold up The Groundhog and care for The Groundhog prophets. Keeping Punxsutawney Phil young via the magical Groundhog Punch or tending to the successors of his numerous rivals. All this spawning from the Groundhog traditions and continued in the Groundhog Lodges of the Pennsylvania Dutch. A place where The Groundhog is honored in a fraternal order not dissimilar to the Order of Elks, though with a much more Tongue-in-Cheek approach to tradition. Here the language of the Deitsch is preserved, the traditions kept, the stories told, and even new poetry and plays are written in what would otherwise be a dead language keeping the flame alive of tradition.

Here the “baby groundhogs” are sworn in as new members, their paws before them as if groundhogs themselves. Here pledges of property, duty, and life are made to The Groundhog. A giant statue of The Groundhog is crowned in ceremony, and a stuffed effigy of The Groundhog serves as a focal point of pomp. These Versammlinge’s or “meetings” preserve the culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch. It is from them this tradition has spawned and rooted across America.

The holiday has been on a millennia long journey to its present state from the ancient forests of Europe to the silver screen of America. Yet it has become a sensation. Groundhog Day is no mere sideshow attraction. It is an international holiday that has dignitaries the world over keeping their eye on it. While The Groundhog may have been usurped by Punxsutawney Phil as the focal point of the holiday and lore, the heart of the holiday remains. In the cold nights of the year the followers of this “Cult of Groundhogism” come together. Bonfires are lit, carols are sung, ceremony is held, music is played in the spirit of a holiday that is older than history. To a being who is eternal. Whether Phil, Beau, Jimmy, Orphie, or any of the prophet groundhogs are correct has never been the point. Perhaps there was some logical reason for looking to hibernating animals once, but that was not the spirit nor the point of the holiday. It was in the time we spend together, when it seems the sun may never return. When Jack Frost bit at our neck, Old Man Winter blew piercing winds, and Mother Earth is asleep we wake and we wait for a small source of joy. In the darkest time the little lights of a small pudgy rodent can mean the world. For while much of the ceremony is tongue-in-cheek, do we not all believe just a little, or at least wish The Groundhog to be true in its powers. The whimsy and joy passed from one smiling face to the next, bonfires burn and songs are sung as they were eons ago before bears and godheads, and in the small hands of our young no bigger than the groundhog itself, for a moment their eyes are full of wonder and magic. In them, the legend of The Groundhog lives on.


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