The Groundhog Fraud
How do you know whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow? A Slate investigation.
With Feb. 2 fast approaching, superstitious weather watchers are awaiting news as to whether Punxsutawney Phil—or their groundhog designate of choice—will see his shadow. In 2004, Timothy Noah investigated how one actually determines whether a groundhog notices his shadow, a trail that led him back to pre-Christian pagan rituals. His original article is reprinted below.
Granted, a skeptical inquiry into the reliability of Punxsutawney Phil as weather predictor would at first blush seem as pointless as investigating delivery of babies by stork or candy via the Easter Bunny. Unlike the latter two examples, though, the Groundhog Day myth lacks internal logic. You can, at least theoretically, observe a stork dropping babies from the sky or a bunny hopping around with a basket handle in its mouth. But how can you tell whether a groundhog has seen his shadow? It's as problematic, in its own way, as Princeton philosopher Peter Singer's argument in his famously controversial essay, "Heavy Petting," that bestiality is permissible provided the donkey consents.
After further inquiry, Chatterbox is able to report that it isn't strictly necessary that the groundhog see his shadow; merely that he cast one that others may see. The determining factor, then, is whether it's sunny or cloudy on Candlemas Day, an early Christian feast day commemorating the Virgin Mary's postnatal purification * that involved a lot of candle-bearing and therefore, inevitably, the casting of many shadows. Like many other Christian festivals, Candlemas co-opted an earlier pagan rite, and nowadays Wiccans are much keener about celebrating it than most Christians.
Candlemas folklore, which begat the less exalted Groundhog Day folklore, is paradoxical, apparently by design. If the sun is shining—a sign often taken to mean the weather's getting warmer—there will be six weeks more of winter. If the sun isn't shining—a sign often taken to mean that it will remain cold and snowy or wet—then winter's over, or almost over. This superstition gave rural people much mystery to dwell upon during the chill nights of February and March, which was greatly preferable to having them get schnockered. According to an old Scottish rhyme,
If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,
Half the winter's to come and mair.
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul,
Half o' winter's gane at Yule.
Germans apparently carried with them to rural Pennsylvania a variation involving what has alternatively been described as a badger or a hedgehog "seeing" its shadow, and upon arrival transferred that superstition to groundhogs (which, incidentally, are the same thing as woodchucks). The reading must be taken around dawn, because that's when woodland creatures awaken. That also avoids the difficulty of positing a shadow at noontime on a sunny day. But of course, the animal is superfluous. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, you don't need a groundhog to tell which way the sun is shining (or not shining).
Punxsutawney (whose name derives from a Native American phrase meaning "town of sandflies") claims pre-eminence in groundhog-based divination, apparently because during the past 118 years the town has put more effort into it than anybody else. The 1993 hit movie Groundhog Day—which, disappointingly, was filmed in Woodstock, Ill.—cemented Punxsutawney's claim in popular culture. But some locales prefer to deploy their own groundhogs. Staten Island, for example, favors "Staten Island Chuck," who lives at the Staten Island Zoo. (Who knew there even was a zoo on Staten Island?) This year Chuck did not see his shadow, even though, according to Newsday's Amanda Y. Barrett, it was clear and sunny. Perhaps the call was made in order to cheer up a borough whose most famous asset, the Staten Island ferry, has been associated lately with a ghastly accident that killed 10 people in October and, more recently, with the suspected suicide of monologist Spalding Gray.
Staten Island Chuck's optimism, along with that of Jimmy the Groundhog in Sun Prairie, Wis., differs with the official view. On Gobbler's Knob, Groundhog Club President Bill Cooper pronounced at 7:27 a.m. Feb. 2 that Punxsutawney Phil had seen his shadow, foretelling six more weeks of winter. This appears to be in line with the National Weather Service's winter storm warning for tonight and its forecast that temperatures won't get above 32 degrees in Punxsutawney through the rest of this week. (It's not expected to be much better on Staten Island.)
Even if the sun isn't shining, predicting six more weeks of cold weather would seem always to be the safe call, given that the vernal equinox occurs reliably every March 20. In keeping with that reality, Punxsutawney has predicted six more weeks of winter more than 90 percent of the time going all the way back to 1887. But Mother Nature can't abide the timid, especially when they come bearing Official Souvenirs. According to the Stormfax Almanac, Punxsutawney's six-week prognostication has only been correct 39 percent of the time. As is true of so many other things, you'd do better to flip a coin.
Correction, Feb. 4, 2009:An earlier version of this column stated incorrectly that Candlemas commemorates the baptism of Jesus. In fact, it commemorates the Virgin Mary's purification after the birth of Jesus. The ritual required the presentation of the baby Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, but that was not a baptism. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Punxsutawney Phil by Jason Cohn/Reuters.