Monday, February 2, 2015

"When Chekhov Saw the Long Winter" - Groundhog Day 2015

For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May.

                              – German Proverb

German settlers arrived in the American colonies throughout the 18th century and with them came the tradition known as Candlemas Day which is celebrated each February 2.  It occurs at the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.  Along with its importance in the Christian liturgical calendar, the day is also associated with weather prediction.  It is said that if the weather is fair on that day, the remainder of the winter season will be cold and snowy.  If, on the other hand, the weather is cloudy and gloomy, this means spring will arrive early.  It was from this tradition that the Pennsylvania Germans came to celebrate Groundhog Day ["Murmeltiertag," or the local variant "Grundsaudaag"] on February 2.

Almost every year on this date since 1887 ("war clouds have blacked out parts of the shadow" in 1942 and 1943 according to the event’s official history), one in a long line of resident groundhogs named “Punxsutawney Phil” has emerged from his hibernation den on Gobbler’s Knob, near that west-central Pennsylvania town, and offered a prognostication as to when winter will end using the same rule observed on Candlemas.

A week ago a good friend and I planned a road trip north into east-central Pennsylvania to follow in the footsteps of noted American writer Conrad Richter; not quite as far away as Punxsutawney on the Allegheny Plateau, but far enough into the Ridge and Valley Province of the central Appalachians where weather can always be a factor this time of the year.  An earlier forecast had predicted a fair day and we were looking forward to the trip.  Unfortunately, a large nor’easter, as they have a want to do this time of year,  brought the season’s first major snow storm to the upper Mid-Atlantic region and New England where close to three feet of snow fell in some places before it was all over.  Central Pennsylvania was just on the edge of the storm, yet enough snow fell on our destination that day that common sense was the better part of valor and we had to postpone our outing.  (A rescheduled road trip to Pine Grove, Pennsylvania will be the subject of a future posting.)

Winter weather, and how much more snow we can expect this year, was on my mind again early on this rainy morning as I was sitting in my kitchen with my first cup of coffee.  Staring out at the gloom and the coming dawn here on the fringes of our Nation’s Capital, I was curious what Punxsutawney Phil, the Seer of all Seers and the  Prognosticator of all Prognosticators, would have to say about the next six weeks of winter.  Shortly after 7am I returned to my upstairs office and switched on my computer to watch the live stream broadcast from Punxsutawney on  The skies were dark and gloomy there, too, the only light coming from dozens of remote television crews covering this propitious annual event . . . the 129th gathering of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club on Gobbler’s Knob.  There was music as colorfully-clad young maidens danced on stage to the thrumming beat of music too loud and too boisterous for so early in the morning.  No sleeping in for Phil this morning.  He had important work to do.   

At the appropriate moment shortly after 7am, the top-hatted Inner Circle of the Groundhog Club entered through the crowd and assembled around the old tree stump that is the entry to Phil’s den.  Each member of the circle was introduced, and finally, the club’s president rapped on the door of the den with a wooden cane to awaken Phil.  Two handlers took some effort to extricate Phil as the crowded shouted the “Phil Chant.”  “He’s a little angry this year,” offered the president, but I imagine were I Phil I would have been less than thrilled to be dragged from my bed on a cold, snowy morning.  Two scrolls had been prepared, one predicting six more weeks of winter, the other offering hope for an early spring.  The president had a short conversation with Phil in “Groundhogese” and at 7:25am his prediction was read aloud to the crowd.  “Yes, a shadow I see . . .” and with that a long winter was confirmed to a mixture of cheers and groans.  For the record, the various Phils have seen their shadow 102 times while failing to do so only 17 times.  The data from several years is mysteriously missing.  So it would seem there were few surprises this morning on Gobbler’s Knob where a mixture of rain and snow fell throughout the ceremony and another major winter storm is moving out of America’s heartland into New England with a prediction of up to a foot of new snow in northern Pennsylvania.

What with Phil’s roughly 40% accuracy rate, the question remains.  Will my friend and I be taking that road trip into Pennsylvania this month as planned, or are we looking at March and the final arrival of decent weather?  We will just have to wait and see.  Frankly, I really don’t mind winter that much.  There is much to like about the season.  I think Phil Connors, the Pittsburgh weatherman played by Bill Murray in the 1993  film “Groundhog Day” perhaps said it best.  “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

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