Everything you think you know about Groundhog Day is wrong. It’s not about predicting the weather or keeping up some quaint old world tradition–though both of those definitely do happen. It’s not even really about the namesake woodland creature, but you can be excused for thinking so. If most of your information comes from the eponymous Bill Murray/Andie MacDowell movie, I’m afraid you’ve been even further deceived.
O.K. Maybe “everything you know is wrong” is an exaggeration. I’ll speak for the rest of the world in saying the basic facts outsiders understand are that on February 2 each year, a committee of local citizens pulls a groundhog (always named “Phil”) from a stump in Punxsutawney, Pa. in an attempt to predict–in the vaguest possible terms–the end of winter and coming of spring. Inexplicably, the season’s future hinges on whether or not the little guy “sees his shadow.”
The Groundhog Day tradition goes back well over a hundred years–even longer if you consider its German roots–and is regular fodder for end-of-broadcast feel-good chuckles between hosts on the evening news. This much is all true.
Of the many things Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis’ 1993 feel-good fantasy/comedy, gets wrong is that Bill Murray’s cynical weatherman Phil Connors can’t just roll out of bed at 6:00 AM, chit-chat with Ned Ryerson, and amble across the town square to file his report.
No no no. First of all, you can bet the local network affiliate isn’t ponying up for surge-priced B&B rates on the single day when every lodging in greater Punxsutawney has been sold out for a year. When our crew arrived at 2:00 AM, there was an imposing fleet of satellite-equipped TV trucks already camped-out in the parking lot. All the major networks were there, along with a handful of cable new outlets, plus The Weather Channel and AccuWeather. Big engines were humming and news crews had clearly napped–as best they could–right there in their bucket seats and were already mainlining black coffee to get through the long morning.
More importantly, though, the movie–filmed not in Western Pennsylvania, but in Woodstock, Ill.–makes it out as if the event takes place in the center of town, on a square surrounded by local businesses. There, a couple hundred people gather to watch Phil do his thing in the broad daylight.
The real Gobbler’s Knob is around a mile–as the crow flies–from Punxsutawney’s equally-charming, but differently-shaped downtown. It sits in the basin of a wooded area–sort of a natural amphitheater–with a large stage and some unobstructive railing to keep the crowds from pushing in too close when things get crazy.
There is not nearly enough parking to accommodate the mass of Phil faithful, so participants arrive through the night and into the early morning on one of a non-stop series of school buses literally moonlighting as town-to-Knob shuttles. The hardier and/or more impatient hoof it up a curling back road from the east side of Punxsy.
Groundhog Day has become a massive draw for little Punxsutawney. The town of around 6,000 attracts way more visitors than that number to the event. Varying estimates put recent crowd sizes between twelve and thirty thousand people.
Groundhog Day may be the world’s coldest, darkest D.I.Y. fashion event. This first-time visitor had no idea that so much of the audience would arrive in various degrees of groundhog attire and tribute. There were groundhog masks and groundhog puppets, groundhog t-shirts and super-fan signage, stuffed groundhogs, and full-body groundhog suits.
But it is the hats that really mark this festival. Custom-made toppers of all designs–stacked hog heads like faces on a totem pole and dainty scenes of Phil frolicking in a bed of feathers, pearls, and wispy notions. There are countless renditions of The Punxsutawney Prognosticator either emerging-from or sitting atop his stump and all manner of knit caps featuring cartoonish eyeballs, buck teeth, and little ears.
How many of these are fan-created vs. purchased in downtown Punxsutawney’s groundhog gift shops we do not know (yet!) but any way you slice it, the sheer breadth of Phil-themed headwear was incredible. Orbit staff did its best to get around and document what we could, but please realize the photos included here are but a tiny proportion of the actual outfits.
… and then there’s daybreak. My goodness, you’ve never experienced the glory of a sunrise until you’ve spent an entire evening in 12-degree blackness. It was as if natural light did not exist. The feeling of the first rays of a new dawn filtering through spindly tree trunks of a snowy, Jefferson County wood are to be born again, to be showered in light, to feel the absolute glory of being alive.
It is at this precise moment–the event is tightly coordinated to apex at daybreak–that The Inner Circle makes its solemn approach. Twelve (fifteen, maybe?) men [yes: they are all (white) men] in black top hats, long coats, pants, and dress shoes take the stage and perform a variation on the same Groundhog Day ritual that goes all the way back to 1887.
That makes the whole thing sound overly serious–it’s not. There’s a little razzle-dazzle, some corny jokes, and a bunch of good-natured playing-to-the-crowd shenanigans. Phil proceeds to tell us all our future–at least the next six weeks’ worth–relayed through an Inner Circle member who “speaks Groundhogese” with the aid of a weathered walking cane allegedly passed-down from generations of previous Inner Circle insiders.
This is important: it is completely unclear where the whole “sees his shadow” bit comes from. Phil was presented not with options toward and away-from the low-angle morning sunlight, but instead with two tiny scrolls, unfurled, read aloud for the audience, and laid out before his discriminating paws. It turns out the groundhog is not some freaked-out wimp, scared of his own shadow, but instead one who appreciates the winter as a good time to catch up on his reading and make a thoughtful decision.The uninitiated cynic–especially one from a warmer, more sun rich environ–might imagine Groundhog Day as a group of shivering bumpkins, inanely praying for a rodent’s divination to the end of their long, cold suffering. Move to Florida! they smugly think to themselves, resting their sunglasses to tend the hibachi. But that shallow reading misses everything.
No, the holiday is not a prayer for sunshine; rather, it’s a defiance of winter. Participants don’t just go out in the cold for fun–as skiers or Christmas shoppers might–but rise in the middle of the night, staying out through the longest, darkest, and coldest hours of the year in total communion with the groundhog. It’s flaunting woodchuck fashion with signs asking for–nay, demanding—more winter!
The roar of applause that greets the news of six more weeks of the cold stuff is a hardy people’s collective nose-thumbing (note: not middle finger–this event is as wholesome as they get!) at the notion that fun is inextricably bound to sun.
It is not. The clean-cut, hopped-up, groundhog-crazy crowd at Punxsutawney proves exactly that. To Ol’ Man Winter–just like Phil, George W. Bush, and that fleet of Hollywood cheerleaders before us, we say, bring it on.
Getting there: Punxsutawney is about an hour and a half drive northeast of Pittsburgh. The gates to Gobbler’s Knob open to the public at 3 AM on Groundhog Day, February 2 of each year. In 2019, this will conveniently fall on a weekend–just sayin’.
 The legend goes that there is only one Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog imbued with everlasting life–but this is a subject way to broad to cover in this post.
 For the record, this blogger still thinks Groundhog Day is a terrific movie–it’s just not factually accurate to the experience in Punxsutawney.
 In fairness, the high attendance at Groundhog Day (the event) over the last 25 years is largely attributed to the lasting popularity of the movie. Crowd sizes in 1993 (and earlier) were likely much smaller than today.
 No thanks to our cub reporter staff! Thirteen other people in The Orbit‘s posse and not a one turned in a hat photo. Don’t come looking for recommendation letters, you slackers!