Column: What’s the point of Groundhog Day anyway?

COLUMBIA PICTURES COURTESY PHOTO | Bill Murray drives Punxsutawney Phil off a cliff in the 1993 fim "Groundhog Day."

I’ve never really cared for Groundhog Day.

Maybe that’s because it’s one of the few holidays I didn’t get off from school when I was a kid. Or maybe it’s because, thanks to Harold Ramis and Bill Murray, I spent my awkward high school years afraid Groundhog Day would repeat over and over again.

Also in my youth, I had a next-door neighbor whose birthday was Groundhog Day, so I suppose I didn’t like it much when he was pulling a wheelie on his new bike and I had to wait another month for mine.

Now I don’t like Groundhog Day just because it’s a weird holiday. What are we celebrating? Groundhogs? Why? I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a groundhog on any day other than Groundhog Day.

Turns out there is no meaning to Groundhog Day other than the fact that a groundhog emerges from its burrow long enough to be freaked out by a bunch of men, women and children staring at it, waiting to see if it sees its shadow.

If I were a groundhog, I’d hate my holiday.

“You have weathermen and a centuries old calendar system to tell you there’s six weeks left of winter,” Groundhog Grant would say. “What the heck do you need me for?” I’d then look at my shadow every time just to spite people.

We really made this a holiday? Three men landed on the moon July 20, 1969, and yet we don’t celebrate that day each year. Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow and we give him 4 percent of February to call his own? What’s going on here?

And where do these names come from? Holtsville Hal, Malverne Mel, Buckeye Chuck, Staten Island Chuck and Wiarton Willie; they sound more like angry sports talk radio callers than rodents.

But we continue celebrating this day each year, even though it really does nothing for us. Heck, research data shows us the groundhog is wrong more often than it’s right. The National Climatic Data Center reported the overall predictions accuracy rate is around 39 percent for groundhogs, which would make them Hall of Famers in baseball and unemployed in any other profession.

It turns out Groundhog Day dates back more than 250 years, with roots in other customs popularized as far back as medieval times. One of the earliest American references to Groundhog Day is in the diary of Pennsylvania storekeeper James Morris, who, according to various Internet reports, wrote on Feb. 5, 1841: “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.” Not only was his the longest sentence ever written, it also ranks among the most boring diary entries ever penned. There was clearly little to do in the Quaker State during the mid-19th century.

And that apparently hasn’t changed much. It’s estimated that more than 40,000 people, many of them camping out in the cold overnight, head to Punxsutawney each year to see what Phil has to say for himself. That’s more than half the number of paying customers who will attend the Super Bowl on Sunday.

If PETA has its way, those people won’t be going to see their favorite little groundhog for much longer. The animal rights group has reportedly asked that the legendary prognosticator be replaced with a robot, a fate I’m sure Phil — who apparently has his own Twitter page—  would be OK with.

After all, if you were told you no longer had to perform your volunteer job in front of a large crowd of onlookers in freezing cold weather, how much of a fight would you put up?

Editor’s Note: This column was originally published in 2010.

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