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David Bouchier: Groundhog Day

Image by Stefaan Van der Biest from Pixabay

Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting “Groundhog Day” shows a plain kitchen table in an old farmhouse. On the table are a knife, a plate, a cup and a saucer. A low sun slants in through the window and outside we can see a wire fence and some split logs. It certainly looks like February.

The nostalgic simplicity of this painting is all the more poignant when Groundhog Day actually comes around. It is one of those picturesque American traditions that have been hijacked by the media circus. It harks back to an old European superstition that the weather on Candlemas, February 2, would predict the weather for the rest of the winter.

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

Well, it will be Candlemas tomorrow, and you can look out the window and make your own forecast. A groundhog is not strictly necessary. But somehow one particular groundhog called Phil got saddled with the thankless job of weather forecasting. He was recruited in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on February 2, 1886, and is now getting quite elderly. In a normal year thousands of people come to see the event, but not this year. But it will be on national television, and radio, and the internet, so there’s no danger of missing it.

The Delaware Native Americans considered groundhogs to be honorable ancestors, which I’m sure they are. The groundhog, also known as the woodchuck or marmot, is a charming creature. He is vegetarian, non-violent, and he loves to sleep. I share at least two of those characteristics myself. But Punxsutawney Phil is not getting enough sleep. His is a particular example of a general cultural problem in America. We are none of us getting enough sleep because we get up far too early, and for no good reason. If everything goes according to schedule tomorrow morning, poor old Phil will hauled out of his burrow at a place called Gobbler’s Knob at 7:25 a.m. Why so early? Left to his own devices Phil would probably sleep all day, and not even think about the weather. Me too.

After 135 years of repetition the unfortunate marmot must surely be getting bored with this. But at least he is famous, which counts for a lot in America. There was even a movie called Groundhog Day which was all about repetition. The hero, called Phil of course, discovers that when he wakes up every day it is always the same day. Many of us have felt just like this, stuck at home by COVID — every morning like every other morning. When he is hauled in front of the TV cameras tomorrow, Punxsutawney Phil will surely think: “Oh no, not again!”

Whatever Punxsutawney Phil predicts you can safely ignore it. For one thing he will be only half-awake, and for another my research reveals that the clever little rodent doesn’t live under a tree on a cold hillside at all. He lives in the nice, warm local library, getting fat on a diet of rabbit food and ice cream. He’s only put in his famous burrow a few minutes before the media event. He lives in a library! What does he know about the weather?

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.