I’m the guy that did it; I’ll be the fall guy. It’s not Phil’s fault.
If Bill Deeley sounds frantic, it’s with good reason. As president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle, he’s responsible for Phil. In case you’re wondering, that would be Punxsutawney Phil, the Pennsylvanian groundhog who emerges from his burrow every February 2nd to make a weather prognostication. According to tradition, if Phil sees his shadow, there’s six more weeks of winter weather to look forward to—no shadow means an early spring. Phil’s spin machine claims he’s right about 95% of the time. The more jaundiced folks at the National Weather Service put the number somewhere south of 39%. That difference is what’s behind Deeley’s sudden rise in blood pressure. It seems that in the late winter of 2013, Mike Gmoser, the Prosecutor in nearby (relatively speaking) Butler County, Ohio felt ill-used by Phil who had gamely predicted an early spring. With teeth chattering in the cold, Gmoser filed a criminal indictment alleging, “Punxsutawney Phil did purposely, and with prior calculation and design, cause the people to believe that Spring would come early. Contrary to the Groundhog day report, a snowstorm and record low temperatures have been and are predicted to continue in the near future, which constitutes the offense of MISREPRESENTATION OF EARLY SPRING, a Unclassified Felony, and against the peace and dignity of the State Of Ohio.” Gmoser reasoned that since Phil is already consigned to a cage year-round, the death penalty would be sought as a permanent remedy. Yikes! No wonder Deeley is upset. But how did this come about? How is it possible that a group of otherwise sober Pennsylvanians turned their entire community into a shrine for an oversized weather predicting squirrel (or large rat as less charitable critics claim)?
Some believe that Groundhog Day is a secularized version of Candlemas. Candlemas is Christian liturgical feast day celebrated on February 2nd. It commemorates the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. What this has to do with groundhogs and weather is anyone’s guess, but English tradition has it that quite independent of the religious meaning, bears wake up on that day to check for signs of spring. Another possible link is the German holiday of Siebenschläfertag. For those of you not current on obscure German holidays, Siebenschläfertag or Seven Sleepers Day is held on June 27th. The weather on that day is a predictor of weather for the next seven weeks. The story behind the holiday dates to 250 C.E. when seven Christian youths fleeing persecution, holed up in a cave and fell asleep. The crafty Romans took this opportunity to seal the cave. After the boys woke up 180 years later (you read that right), they were surprised to discover that Christianity had gone mainstream. After enjoying a snack and chat with the local bishop, they promptly died. This good news-bad-news story still doesn’t explain the weather predicting rodent in Punxsutawney, but it does hint at the confusion surrounding Phil and Groundhog Day that got Gmoser’s dander up.
Of course the lawsuit, and for that matter, Groundhog day is all in good fun. But humor can tell us something about ourselves. The idea of indicting a groundhog suggests just how thin skinned we can be. Something isn’t impolite, it’s INSENSITIVE! Something isn’t in poor taste, it’s OFFENSIVE! Too often we’re too easily offended and then demand disproportionate recompense. This stifles creativity, collegiality and undermines trust. The solution is tolerance. Not everyone who disagrees with us is an idiot. A difference of opinion doesn’t imply evil intent. Let’s ratchet down the rhetoric and lighten up. And let’s begin the process by starting a petition to pardon Phil! —Ebert