Commentary: Praise to the prognosticating Punxsutawney Phil

By Mike Weilbacher

Very early this morning, a portly aging man in top hat and tails will unceremoniously yank a grumpy groundhog from his winter den and present it to a roaring crowd numbering in the tens of thousands. The man will whisper to the groundhog in their secret, shared language, what he calls "Groundhogese."

And, for the 131st time, Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous rodent this side of a certain mouse named Mickey, will predict the weather.

Happy Groundhog Day.

Though Phil's batting average isn't high - the National Climatic Data Center says his accuracy is only 39 percent, worse than a coin flip - chances are good he sees his shadow today, calling for six more weeks of winter. As in 131 tries, that's been his call a relatively safe 102 times.

But as a naturalist, I love a holiday named for an animal, and I'm tickled that the national media just might make room among today's presidential tweets to squeeze this story in.

And I love that it's based in some natural history. Groundhogs - also called woodchucks - are in fact hibernators, sleeping the entire winter away in underground burrows, their heart rate plummeting from summer's 80 beats per minute to winter's five. In February, males arouse themselves from this slumber to scout their territory, searching for the dens of potential mates. Finished scouting, they go back to sleep for another month or so.

Pennsylvania Dutch farmers settling in the New World brought their German tradition of seeking out a hibernating animal - for them it was badgers, while Brits used hedgehogs - on Feb. 2 for weather prognostications. Coming here and seeing groundhogs roaming in February likely began the tradition of groundhogs as the hibernator of choice.

But the choice of Feb. 2 is no accident. Those same German settlers also commemorated the Christian Candlemas, the day when clergy blessed and distributed candles to combat the dark of winter, and lighted candles were placed in windows. Candlemas comes at the exact midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox, and superstition held that if the weather was fair this day, the second half of winter would be cold and stormy.

"If Candlemas be fair and bright," said the superstition, "winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again."

Candlemas itself has an origin in the pagan celebration of Imbolc, one of four cross-quarter days, the halfway marks of seasons. Echoes of ancient cross-quarter holidays have stayed with us through the ages in May Day, Halloween, Groundhog Day.

Today, we are halfway through winter, as farmers used to remind themselves by repeating the adage, "Groundhog Day, half your hay." Pace yourself; make sure you've got enough for winter's second half.

Seems there was a long-ago tug of war over which calendar would mark the seasons, one where cross-quarter days begin them, the other where solstices and equinoxes do. So Midsummer's Eve, another pre-Christian holiday captured so wonderfully by Shakespeare, occurs on the summer solstice, now the beginning of summer. But way back when, the solstice was the midway point of the season.

Portions of that ancient calendar have stayed with us, embedded in our cultural DNA. When that top-hatted gentleman pulls Phil out of his burrow up there on Gobbler's Knob, he reminds us of olden days when a completely different calendar ruled - and today is suddenly Imbolc, the very first day of Spring.

As this winter's temperatures have yo-yo'd wildly, we'll see what Phil's call is. And let's be honest: He's got a better chance of getting his prediction right than anyone has of guessing how well the Phillies perform this year. Speaking of which, their first Clearwater workout is in two weeks. See, spring really is coming!

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education and appears on WXPN's "Kid's Corner." @SCEEMike mike@schuylkillcenter.org