It has become fashionable at this time of the year to denounce the groundhog. As soon as February 2 approaches, this amiable critter is described as a phony weather prophet, a humbug and sluggard who sleeps on the one day he should get out and get his picture in the papers. Now let's just hold on a minute. Who claimed that if the groundhog or woodchuck saw his shadow there would be six more weeks of winter, and if he didn't, spring would be early?
The truth is that the groundhog is an unknowing substitute for the European hedgehog in this shady job. February 2 is Candlemas Day, celebrated since early Christian times in Europe, where there is an ancient popular belief that if the weather is fair on Candlemas Day the winter will be long.
Somehow the task of testing whether Candlemas Day was sunny was assigned to the European hedgehog, an animal about 10 inches long with short quills like a porcupine. The hedgehog stirs from his slumbers on any warm winter day, so he was a likely candidate for the job.
HOW THE LEGEND BEGAN
When the early settlers came to this country they naturally brought many of their beliefs with them. In the New World they found no hedgehogs, but they did find the groundhog. It had only the faintest resemblance to the hedgehog but it slept underground, so they just shifted the job of weather prophet onto it. They didn't take into consideration that the groundhog is a late sleeper; that when February 2 comes around he generally is still curled up in his den in deep hibernation.
When the groundhog comes out of his burrow in late February or early March it is not from any desire to see his shadow but usually to seek romance. The male groundhog makes long journeys in search of a mate, trudging through snow and rain and sleet and gloom of night—sort of like a postman but for a different reason.
There was one man to whom no one dared denounce the groundhog. He was George Washington Hensel Jr., who served for many years as the Hibernating Governor of the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge of Quarryville, Pa. Under his leadership this lodge, the only secret groundhog order in the world, grew to be a great force for fun.
It was my good fortune one bleak February 2 to participate in the mystic rites at Quarryville. Half the day was devoted to field work. Wearing top hats and sombreros and carrying shepherd's crooks and 12 gauge shotguns, 43 members of the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge braved winds of gale force in a search for the prophetic marmot.
The Hibernating Governor divided them into squads of five or six men. Each squad was led by a Prophet who carried a long fishing pole with a white rag tied to it for wigwagging purposes. One squad was led by the Defender of the Faith, who had a huge key dangling around his neck. It was the key to the Portals of Secrecy but, as no outsider ever touched it, the secrets remained secret. In front of him walked the Enlightening Advocate, carrying a shotgun. It was not his duty to shoot groundhogs. (Heaven forbid!) His job was to defend the Defender of the Faith.
The strain on the members was terrific. There were long periods of cruising and watchful waiting at the mouths of groundhog holes. At one point the Hibernating Governor waved his shepherd's crook and said proudly, "Just look at that squad." To the west six men were silhouetted against a dull sky as they marched along the brow of a hill. One was beating a bass drum. Another clanged a pair of cymbals. Their bodies leaned into the gale as they carried on their relentless search for a groundhog. All agreed it was an inspiring sight.
THE LONG-AWAITED REPORT
Most of the squads were down in an old rock quarry engaged in tireless hole-watching when Hibernating Governor Hensel emitted a bloodcurdling scream. A chorus of equally inhuman sounds answered from the rim of the quarry, where stood the members of Squad No. 5. Three times they roared in the wind.
"Have you a report?" shouted Hensel through cupped hands.
"Yes, Brother Groundhog, we have a report," came the answer.
"Come forward and report."
They scrambled down the slope and the Prophet of the squad said, "At 9:42 7/8 a.m., at a point 76° 8' longitude, 39° 52' latitude, Eden Township, the groundhog saw his shadow and scooted back."
This announcement was greeted with howls of approbation, and the lodge members formed in single file to march back the weary quarter mile and take the news to Quarryville and the world. There was a parade and feasting and loud laughter rocked the small town. They finally assembled in the Hibernating Governor's hardware store where the festivities continued far into the night.
Perhaps the late Mr. Hensel had the right idea. He fostered a myth but he generated fun. At least he didn't go around blaming the groundhog for something the critter didn't ask for in the first place.