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Another spring of recovery is in the offing for unfortunate Phil

I’ve always wondered how Groundhog Day became such a big deal. Why would a groundhog leave its den in the middle of winter and stumble around looking for its shadow?

He wouldn’t, of course. That’s why the people of Punxsutawney, Penn., always drag Phil out by his neck. This would be fine in the summer, but they shouldn’t pester a critter in the middle of winter. He’ll get insomnia, if they don’t put him back.

I’ve read that Groundhog Day began in Europe as a religious celebration called Candlemas Day. This was chosen as 40 days from the birth of Christ on Dec. 25, and represents the day on which the infant Jesus was presented in the temple of Jerusalem. The celebration dates from about 390 A.D. and features processions of candle bearers and prayers.

Feb. 2 also falls halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. That somehow caused folks in Europe to believe the bear or badger or hedgehog would stir from its winter sleep on Candlemas Day. (This seems kind of weird, but I can go along with it.)

If the day is clear and the animal sees its shadow, we have six more weeks of winter. If it’s cloudy, the creature doesn’t see its shadow, and we have six weeks of bad weather instead.

Whatever gave people the idea the groundhog would crawl from its burrow on Feb. 2? The Europeans were partial to hedgehogs for Candlemas Day, but when the pilgrims arrived in North America, there weren’t any. The new immigrants picked the groundhog as a fill-in.

These immigrants could have brought some hedgehogs with them, of course, but those things are really hard to pack. They are so round and squirmy, they fall out of your bag and roll up and down the aisles.

There is one small problem with substituting groundhogs, however: The hedgehog is not a true hibernator, whereas the groundhog is. A hedgehog might wake up and wander around on any warm winter day. A groundhog will not.

Readers will recall the hedgehog is a small, spiny creature with short quills pointing backward. This lets them enter the burrow quite easily – but causes all sorts of problems if they have to back up.
That’s why hedgehogs wake up so often. They have nightmares about getting stuck in that hole in the ground.

The groundhog, on the other hand, is zonked out until spring. He knows when his hole is frozen, and he’s not leaving the burrow for anyone, least of all some character in a dumb-looking hat.
That’s why Punxsutawney Phil, Winnipeg Wilber and all of the others have to be dragged out by the nape of their necks. And that’s why Groundhog Day means absolutely nothing for predicting the rest of the winter.

Readers with questions or comments for Roger Pond may write to him in care of this publication.

2/10/2010