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Punxsutawney Phil ready for annual spotlight

| Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 2:22 a.m.

Will winter end early this year? Come Feb. 2, only the shadow knows ...

Punxsutawney Phil has predicted the weather for about 125 years but the roots of Groundhog Day date back to pagan times.

Because Feb. 2 falls midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, pagans such as the Celts of Europe celebrated the day as “Imbolc,” a festival that marked the start of spring.

As Christianity spread, Christians renamed it Candlemas, a festival celebrating Jesus' presentation at the temple. If Candlemas was a sunny day, Christians believed it meant another 40 days of cold and snow.

Animals and Feb. 2 became linked when the Germans declared Candlemas “sunny” only if badgers (or hedgehogs) saw their shadows. They brought the belief with them when they immigrated to America, switching the legend to the native groundhog (also referred to as a woodchuck).

Dates to 1887

Punxsutawney's Ground Hog Day dates back to 1887. Local newspaper editor Clymer Freas cajoled a group of businessmen and groundhog hunters into hosting the shadowy event at Gobbler's Knob.

In the century-and-a-quarter since, Feb. 2 has transformed the sleepy little town 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh into a Ground Hog Day extravaganza. Its population of 6,000 swells to more than 30,000 as visitors flock in droves from throughout the U.S. to partake in its Pennsylvania Polka-style hoopla.

At 7:25 a.m. each Feb. 2, a group of “Inner Circle Dignitaries” yank Punxsutawney Phil from his heated burrow hidden inside a simulated tree trunk. They confer with the furry varmint in “groundhogese” during which Phil informs them whether (weather?) or not he sees his own shadow.

“The Inner Circle” claims tongue-in-cheek that Phil is more than 125 years old because of the strong constitution of his wife, Phyllis, and a magical punch that he drinks. During his long reign as winter forecaster, Phil has not seen his shadow, predicting an early spring, less than 20 times — the most recent being last winter, which was milder than usual.

40 percent accurate?

According to the National Climatic Data Center, Phil's prediction has been correct less than 40 percent of the time — although Phil's followers would dispute that, especially on Feb. 2.

Legend has it that Phil, whose nickname is “Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinaire,” once, during Prohibition, threatened to impose 60 weeks of winter if he wasn't allowed a drink.

Punxsutawney's festival has inspired other states. Vermillion, Ohio, bases its winter / spring prediction on the stripes of wooly caterpillars, hosting a Woolybear Festival that attracts 100,000 visitors each year. Texas uses its state mammal – the armadillo – to make the forecast.

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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