This morning, Punxsutawney Phil, America’s most beloved forecasting groundhog, made his annual appearance in Gobbler’s Knob, Pennsylvania. As a bevy of men in top hats egged him on, Phil spied his shadow, a sure sign that we will have a long, long winter.*
People do a lot of weird things, but the Groundhog Day behavior exhibited in the United States—which may have evolved from the European tradition of Candlemas—is pretty far out there. And for something so steadfastly traditional, the holiday has a funny way of reflecting the current moment. Here are six times when we looked for Phil’s shadow and saw, instead, ourselves.
Pre-1900s: Phil’s Predecessors
Phil is merely the latest creature to dupe us. According to Pennsylvania historian Christopher R. Davis, humans have looked for spring-related omens in “the position of a cat sitting by a fire, the size of the black markings on woolly-bear caterpillars, the measure of fur around a rabbit’s feet … crickets in chimneys, the height of anthills, and the elevation of hornets’ nests,” as well as early appearances of woodchucks, badgers, marmots, wolves, foxes, and bears. Davis also traces the strange fear of shadows to a need for cloudiness in the winter—without enough snow and rain through February, he explains, crops will be dry, and spring won’t be worth looking forward to at all.
1889: Phil On Toast
Before Groundhog Day meant placing faith in the shadow-based whims of groundhogs, it meant eating them. According to Davis, the Groundhog Club actually started as a group of people who liked to hunt and eat groundhogs, and tended to celebrate this trait on one particular day of the year. ”Fellowship, oratory, skits, and rites of initiation were soon emphasized,” Davis writes, and it was only a short hop from there to groundhog worship. No wonder the poor thing is scared of his shadow.
1920: Phil Gets Sauced
According to the official Groundhog Day website, during Prohibition, “Phil threatened to impose 60 weeks of winter on the community if he wasn’t allowed a drink.” In soberer times, Phil’s favorite foods are apparently dog chow and ice cream.
1958: Phil In Space
In 1958, as the Soviet Union beat the United States into space, Phil came out with a conspiracy theory—that a “United States Chucknik,” not Sputnik, was currently orbiting the earth, presumably collecting weather data.
2013: Phil Gets Sued
Despite a stellar show-up record (records show that since 1900, he has only skipped one year—1943—due to World War II), statistical analyses have found that Phil is pretty bad at his job. In 2013, Ohio prosecutor Mike Gmoser sued Phil for ”misrepresentation of early spring, an Unclassified Felony.” Gmoser sought the death penalty, but eased up after Phil’s then-handler offered to take the blame.
2009-2017: Phil Goes Political
Phil’s Big Apple stand-in, Staten Island Chuck, does not get along well with New York mayors. In 2009, he bit Michael Bloomberg on the hand after stealing an ear of corn from him. In 2014, Bill de Blasio dropped Staten Island Charlotte, who died a week later from injuries sustained in the fall. This year, Chuck disagreed with Phil, further dividing the nation. Maybe we need a Groundhog Debate.
Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Update, 2/2/2017: The article has been updated since it was first published to reflect 2017 events.