Good morning, it's Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. Today is Groundhog Day, a more fitting anniversary this year than any of us would like it to be. I won't write this morning about the classic movie of that name, mainly because I've previously done so. But I will briefly explain the origins of the quirky ritual in which residents of Punxsutawney, Pa., coax a woodchuck out of its den, observe it doing something or other, and then issue a proclamation about the length and severity of the rest of winter.
It's hokum as science, of course, yet rife with cultural significance. The midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the day was celebrated in pagan Ireland and among Germanic peoples on the European continent. In the Christian calendar, the second day of February is denoted as Candlemas and it came across the ocean in the early 19th century with German immigrants. Many of them settled in Pennsylvania (the term "Pennsylvania Dutch" being a misnomer; the real phrase was "Pennsylvania Deutsch"). In any event, these Pennsylvania Germans brought a quaint custom with them: determining whether a hedgehog could see its shadow on Feb. 2, presumably a predictor of the weather.
The man credited with using a hokey superstition to put the town of Punxsutawney on the map was Clymer H. Freas, the city editor of The Punxsutawney Spirit. "Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow," he wrote on this date in 1886. It was Freas who dubbed a certain local rodent/dignitary "Punxsutawney Phil" and proclaimed him the "Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary." The editor wasn't coy about his motivations, either: Freas assured his readers their village would become famous as the "Weather Capital of the World."
Nothing wrong with civic boosterism, but giving credit where it's due, by the late 1880s the groundhog gambit was a familiar Pennsylvania tradition. Thanks to the research of diligent Canadian journalist John Barker, we know that as early as 1841, a Berks County shopkeeper named James Morris noted, "Last Tuesday, the 2nd was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate."
James Morris lived far from Punxsutawney in Morgantown, Pa., about 15 miles south of Reading. The locals there were apparently less interested in self-promotion. Or perhaps they simply lacked a local hype artist as creative as Clymer Freas. As for the city editor himself, he apparently didn't care for winter. He retired to Florida and is buried in a shady public cemetery in Tampa.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.