Groundhogs are woodchucks no more

Published 8:57 am Thursday, February 3, 2011

I was definitely meant to live in a warmer climate.

Each year I get the winter blues, and this year I seem to have them even more so. I cannot wait for spring.

So I was more than glad to hear about Punxsutawney Phil not seeing his shadow on Groundhog Day. No shadow from Phil means there will an early spring whereas seeing his shadow means six more weeks of winter.

Each year thousands rise long before dawn on Groundhog Day for the trek to Gobbler’s Hill just outside of Punxsutawney, Pa. to observe the furry critter’s prognostication.

I never saw the ceremony until this year when I caught a clip of it on a cable news program. It was all pomp and circumstance, an elaborate ceremony involving top hats, tuxedos and fancy walking sticks.

Let’s get this straight once and for all. Punxsutawney Phil is not just like any other rodent. He rolls with an elite entourage called Phil’s “Inner Circle” who care for the animal year round and plan each year’s Groundhog Day ceremony.

The tradition of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney dates back to the late 1800s. It apparently originated with German immigrants, a Roman belief and Candlemas Day, which marks mid-winter.

In ancient times, Europeans believed the weather on Candlemas Day would tell them if spring would be early. A fair, sunny day meant winter would last a little while longer, while clouds and rain would mean spring was around the corner.

So how did a groundhog get thrown into the mix? Blame that on the Roman legions that invaded what is now Germany. The Germans concluded that if the sun made an appearance on Candlemas Day, an animal, the hedgehog, would cast a shadow, and predicting six more weeks of bad weather, reflecting the “Second Winter.”

Furthermore, the superstition was changed in the United States by German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and found an abundance of groundhogs.

Before Punxsutawney Phil casts his prognostication for the year, his handlers knock on the door of his pre-fabricated tree stump, then open the door and scoop the critter out. Phil is then set on top of his tree stump where he reportedly “confers” with the “Inner Circle” who then announce whether or not the groundhog has seen his shadow.

Groundhogs are known to be feisty and often aggressive creatures, but looking at Phil you wouldn’t know it. Watching the chubby, hairy groundhog with bright eyes being paraded around after his prediction reminded me somewhat of my guinea pigs at home—particularly, Maize, whose weight probably rivals a groundhog, which can weigh nine to 11 pounds.

As for Phil in Punxsutawney he lives the life of Riley. He only spends that one night in his tree stump burrow for Groundhog Day. The rest of the year is spent in the Punxsutawney Zoo with his wife, Phyllis.

And apparently Phil has discovered the fountain of youth for rodents. The Inner Circle says Phil drinks an elixir each summer which adds another seven years to the groundhog’s life. I suppose that fact is a little tongue in cheek, but probably peaks children’s fascination with the critter.

Oh, Punxsutawney Phil, look how you have changed the world for little rodents such as your self. Apparently, groundhogs are woodchucks no more.

Amanda VanDerBroek is a Staff Writer for the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. For comments and column suggestions email: or call (252) 332-7209.