Legends and lessons of Groundhog Day

The story is the ultimate lesson of a selfish man who suffers the consequences of having a cold heart and finds happiness only when he begins to serve others. It’s about second chances, or in this case, third, fourth and maybe even more than 70 times seven opportunities for a new beginning. 

No, it’s not a biblical narrative nor a Catechism lesson. It’s a comedy called “Groundhog Day,” and in it Bill Murray’s character, Phil, butts horns with his own ego and gets multiple chances to make his miserable life right. It happens when Phil, a Pittsburgh newsman, wakes up morning after morning stuck in Punxsutawney, Pa., repeatedly covering the annual Groundhog Day festival, an assignment that he loathes. 

The release of the movie in 1993 created so much national attention that it’s not unusual even 20 years later for 30,000 people to attend the party and predawn fireworks and witness Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, predicting the weather for the rest of winter.

Big celebration

Years ago when Bob Roberts was growing up in town, members of the Inner Circle of the Groundhog Club considered it a good turnout if 200 people showed up. 

“Now if we have 10,000 or 12,000, we don’t have a good crowd,” he said. 

In Punxsutawney, the first recorded Groundhog Day celebration was held in 1886 and has been held ever since. Roberts is part of the Inner Circle, a group of townsmen who are entrusted with the keeping of Phil, the famous groundhog, and he is Phil’s protector. Mike Johnston is a former vice president and is a member emeritus. Both are members of Sts. Cosmas and Damian Parish. 

“The legend is that if he sees his shadow, he is frightened by it and dives back into his burrow to sleep for six more weeks.” Johnston said. 

That means six more weeks of winter, but how does anyone know what Phil predicts? After all, he lives year-round at the local library and never hibernates. 

“He’s placed on a stump and communicates with the president of the Inner Circle, who is the only person with the gift of being able to understand the language of Phil, which is groundhogese,” Johnston said. “It’s not a spoken language, but a series of clicks and chirps and maybe a wink and a little bit of body language. The president determines Phil’s intent and communicates it with the vice president, and reads the proclamation.”

Ultimate responsibility

The original movie plot developed around what would happen if there were no consequences to our actions. But as it was being filmed, writer Danny Rubin and director Harold Ramis pondered what would happen if we had all the time in the world. So, instead of being about life with no responsibility, it became about the ultimate responsibility to others. Phil was changed because he learned to respond to people in need as he lived the same day repeatedly. 

The movie was filmed in another town that looks like Punxsutawney. Before they started production, Murray joined the crowd for an actual Groundhog Day celebration to get a feel for what it was about. 

“We invited him on stage and put a top hat on him and let him hold Phil,” Roberts said. “And Phil fell asleep.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
Roots of Day
Feb. 2 falls halfway between the shortest day of the year and the spring equinox, and in pagan times was celebrated as a feast of lights. The date also falls 40 days after the Christian celebration of Christmas. Since it was the Jewish tradition to present boys in the temple 40 days after birth, the date became a Christian observance of Mary’s ritual purification after the birth of Jesus, the Light of the World. Thus, the day has been called the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. 
It’s also called Candlemas Day in observance of when people brought candles to church for a blessing and a procession.