Bill Murray and Punxsutawney Phil in the movie Groundhog Day

Punxsutawney Phil Strikes Again

Will the celebrity see his morning shadow again, announcing six more weeks of winter, or will America’s most famous woodchuck miss his profile, predicting an early spring. Or will he be wearing sunglasses? Since 1887, on the famous Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil Sowerby has predicted the weather. One problem – Phil is not a trained meteorologist. According to Stormfax, the weather website, he’s been right only 39 percent of the time. Doesn’t he have the Weather Channel in his hole? What, no cable?

Every February 2, Phil, his “wife” Phyllis, and his “daughter” Phelicia pop up outdoors on Gobbler’s Knob, a rounded hill about two miles outside of the rural, western Pennsylvania  town of Punxsutawney, to check the sky. He’s usually wrong – maybe because he actually lives in a climate-controlled (!) home at the local library (he could do more reading on his subject) and makes a guest appearance outside of town once a year. Phil also loves ice cream and dog food, which he probably orders in from Fresh Direct.

But it’s fixed. A select group from town, the Groundhog Club Inner Circle, actually (and secretly) decides the groundhog’s forecast. The Circlers are the ones in the photos in tuxedos and top hats. Someone should tell them that black tie is only proper after six pm. Before that, the correct formal wear – really – is the cutaway morning coat.  The first Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney was in 1886, while the now legendary Gobbler’s Knob show debuted the next year. It’s 130 years of the Phenomenal Phorecaster.

Since then the “Weather Capital of the World” features Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary. It’s a new, ancient tradition of our people, mixing Imbolc and Candlemas, Celtic and Germanic. Phil may have read about it at the library.

Imbolc is the ancient Celtic religious festival celebrating the Irish Goddess Brigid on February 1, now Christianized as St. Brigid’s Day. If a hibernating animal, traditionally a hedgehog, sees it shadow on this day, winter persists. If it’s cloudy, spring will come early. Candlemas on February 2, in Christianity, marks the Presentation of the Lord at the Temple. In Wales it’s known as Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllhau, Mary’s Festival of the Candles. A German Candlemas tradition names the badger as the weather sage. In Pennsylvania, the two folk traditions merged and the American groundhog took over the starring role.

Further, Imbolc has a feminine side, the Irish Cailleach or old woman, crone. She gathers firewood for the rest of winter in February and wills the weather brighter so she can see to gather branches. If Imbolc is a cloudy day, the Cailleach stays asleep till early spring. The old woman archetype, original model, is a goddess of winter and death. Brigid, a young woman, is a goddess of the coming spring and life.  Imbolc then is the changing of the goddess from the deathly crone to the lively maiden. Winter turns to spring.

In the Walt Disney version of the story, the Evil Queen, deadly, and Snow White, lively (eventually), follow the same pattern. The goddess of death co-stars in a cartoon.

In the Bill Murray version, Phil stars in his own 1993 movie, Groundhog Day (directed by the great, and now unfortunately late, Harold Ramis). But this film was “fixed” Hollywood-style. Most of it was filmed in Woodstock, Illinois, since it was easier to get cast and crew in from nearby Chicago than heading off to scenic but rural Gobbler’s Knob. Tourists to Punxsutawney now wonder why the real town looks “so different, yet seems so similar.” Even the originally-cast Phil was replaced by a bigger groundhog.

So today the Phorecast called for six more weeks of winter. We’ll see. Our local Staten Island Chuck (with an 80 percent accuracy rating) saw no shadow for an early spring. And in Canada, where winter is serious, Shubenacadie Sam from Nova Scotia agreed with Chuck. So the original pagan festival celebrating a rite of spring, a feast marked by acts of divination and rites of purification – or fortune telling and laundry – has mixed with a modern, secular variation.  In six weeks we’ll know the answer.