02 February 2012

Why Groundhog Day Is a Great Holiday

This is pitiful. A thousand people, freezing their butts off, waiting to worship a rat. Groundhog Day used to mean something in this town. They used to pull the hog out and they used to eat it! You’re hypocrites, all of you!

And with those furious words, spoken by a time-loop drained Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) from Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, PA (played by Woodstock, IL), we know it’s once again one of the great holidays of the year: Groundhog Day.

I never cared much about Groundhog Day, aside from acknowledging that it existed, until the film came out. After twenty years, it seems safe to say that this is one of the great American movie comedies, an almost perfect film. The U.S. government agrees, since in 2006 it inducted the film into the National Film Registry. This is a movie I never tire of watching, usually on February 2nd with my father, who loves this film more than any other. This year, I saw it a few days early, when the New Beverly Cinema showed it on a double bill with Ghostbusters. But I still celebrate in little ways on the day itself, texting my friends with weird wishes combined with movie quotes.

Oh, it is easy to celebrate Groundhog Day out here in sunny So. Cal, where the idea of “winter” lasting six more weeks means “it might rain one day.” But the people out in Punxsutawney have no trouble celebrating either, where the event starts the evening before and lasts all through the shivering day, pulling in some ten thousand people from across the country and the world. All to worship “a rat.” Why?

It’s not because of Phil’s accuracy. An ABC news article called the predictions of Punxsutwney Phil as “No better than a coin flip.” And Phil sees his shadow a lot: ninety-nine times since the tradition started in 1877, with only sixteen forecasts of an early spring. I have no idea how the prediction is even made; perhaps the Inner Circle (those fellows with the top hats who manage Phil’s big day) makes the choice before hand.

But really, who cares? The German tradition of animals predicting distant weather patterns, which migrated to the U.S. and emerged among German settlers in Pennsylvania as Groundhog Day, isn’t something people put much faith in, especially with weather satellite technology available on everyone’s hand-held doohickey. The groundhog is an excuse and a symbol for people to have fun in the beginning of February, otherwise a wasteland of fun. (Well, there’s the Superbowl, but I don’t give a damn about that.)

Here are the reasons I hold Groundhog Day to be a great holiday, better than a number of more “official” or “festive” ones (Halloween excepted, of course):

The Movie
Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day is a classic. I’ve already said it, but it needs repeating. A hilarious and heartwarming existential comedy with the best performance ever from Bill Murray. It’s also one of the best “winter films” (as opposed to “winter holiday films”), letting you feel deep in your body the shiver of a long winter, its hassels, its hopelessness . . . and how you can ultimately turn it around. Why not make Groundhog Day the best day of your life?

No Strings Attached, No Red Tape
This is a silly holiday. It has no greater meaning. No religious implications, no national pride, no closeness with your family. And that’s fantastic! Low stress, nothing to get riled about: it’s early February, go have a good time and don’t worry about that candy corporation-fueled event coming up on the fourteenth.

Casual Heritage Remembrance Via Beer
Many nationalities from across the world helped create the United States. German settlers were among the earliest, and they brought with them very good beer. Instead of remembering Germany as that place that brought us two world wars, let’s celebrate that they brought us Groundhog Day, and then down some Augustiner. (My favorite of the Bavarian Beers.)

Need an Excuse to Party and Polka?
When else are you going to get this sort of party combo?

Feel Good for No Reason at All
People, today is a day where we can have fun, shake hands with strangers, feel the world is a pleasantly goofy place—all because some settlers thought a big ground squirrel (Marmota monax) could tell if spring was coming early based on looking at its shadow on the ground. In the world today, we need reasons to feel good—even if the reason really isn’t a reason and involves a woodchuck in Pennsylvania.