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Friday, February 2, 2024

February 2, 2024: Quirky American Traditions: Groundhog Day

[In honor of the very strange ritual that is Groundhog Day, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such quirky and fun traditions, including Phil himself on Friday. I’d love to hear about quirky traditions you’d highlight in comments!]

On two ways to try to make sense of the most famous and one of the strangest of our quirky traditions.

First things first: I blogged about the film Groundhog Day (1993) as part of a weeklong BillMurrayStudying series two years ago this week, and if you thought I wouldn’t take this chance to ask you to check out a freaking BillMurrayStudying blog series, well you thought wrong. Plus, I do think that excellent film is very much about both the Groundhog Day tradition and the community of Punxsutawney that hosts it, so check out that post if you would and then come on back for more GroundhogStudying.

Welcome back! It’s important to note that there are at least a half-dozen other weather-predicting groundhogs (or woodchucks, as the same animal is known in much of the rest of the country) out there in these quirky United States, and yet there’s no doubt that it is Punxsutawney Phil who embodies the tradition and the holiday for most of us (including this AmericanStudier). Part of that is the influence of the film itself, I believe; I don’t remember for sure how much attention was paid to Groundhog Day when I was growing up in the 1980s, but it seems clear that since the 1993 film the attention (like the annual event and gathering on this day) has grown significantly. But I’d argue that another factor, as again the film knows well, is the community of Punxsutawney itself—from its unique name to its Groundhog Club to many other layers to the tradition and how it is commemorated and celebrated every February 2nd, this small Pennsylvania town exemplifies both the randomness and the appeal of quirky local traditions. As with all of the week’s subjects, I’d love the chance to take part in that tradition at least once if it worked out.

At the same time, there’s something distinct about Groundhog Day from all of the other quirky traditions I’ve focused on this week: it is as an actual holiday, one with a longstanding tradition dating back hundreds of years in both the U.S. and Canada. To be clear, in many ways that only makes the whole thing that much quirkier still, that the Pennsylvania Dutch folk belief that groundhogs can predict the seasons based on whether they see their shadow on a particular midwinter day has evolved into a full-on holiday that is celebrated by communities far beyond that particular culture or heritage. Yet at the same time, many of our most prominent holidays likewise began with folk traditions and stories that evolved into the widespread and far more universal celebrations they now entail, with Christmas at the very top of that list of course. And I’d take this line of thought one step further, and argue that almost all holidays are themselves an example of not just a tradition but a quirky one, a collection of random details and practices that gradually get cemented into what seem to be inevitable and essential shared experiences. In that way, Groundhog Day offers a great way to further contextualize the week’s overall topic and how it works in our society.

January Recap this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other traditions you’d highlight?

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