CSotD: The Amazing Day With No Celebrations

In today’s Frazz (AMS), Caulfield asks an important question: Why do we celebrate Groundhog Day?

More to the point, do we celebrate Groundhog Day?

Obviously, the folks in Punxsutawney do, because they’ve managed to turn it into a thing, even though the Bill Murray movie pretty well had it nailed as a pointless story for hapless news crews.

These are known as “brites,” which is to say, fluffy little meaningless stories that lighten the burden of real news. For reporters, brites can be fun to stumble over, because it’s nice, for a change, to not have to probe into someone’s misery or try to deal with someone who is concealing facts.

But mandatory brites are less fun.

In the movie, Murray’s character goes from being a cynical wiseguy who feels insulted by having to cover Groundhog Day into a nice guy, but here’s the real story: Even nice guys feel insulted by being assigned to cover the same brite year after year after year.

Assign it to the newsroom rookie, or an intern. Or just pull up one from five years ago and run it again. Who’s gonna notice?

You might actually get a decent story out of World Wetlands Day, though February is a damn silly time of year to be marking that, and, besides, you ought to be covering wetlands throughout the year anyway.

As for Heavenly Hash Day or Tater Tot Day, those are generally brought to the attention of the newsroom via press releases that go straight into the round file, as they should, though occasionally an editor gets an angry call the next day demanding to know why we ignored it, at which point the challenge becomes finding a polite way of saying, “Because you are the only person in the entire world who cares about it.”

But Groundhog Day is a holy day of obligation and I have no idea why. It was over at 7:06 this morning and the only “news” is whether the little beastie saw his shadow or not. We don’t even get to get drunk.

And speaking of the little beastie, Adam@Home (AMS) notes the pun, to which I would add that, at least in the places I’ve lived, it’s a woodchuck 364 days of the year and only a groundhog today.

Though here’s an off-the-grid woman in Vermont who uses the word groundhog, and if you think Adam ruined his kid’s childhood, don’t click on that link because it details, with photographs, how to prepare the little beastie for dinner.

Your dinner, not his.

RJ Matson is one of a kabillion political cartoonists who marked the day with a cartoon, but one of a very few whose piece stands out, in large part for not showing Bill Murray in bed, but also because he employs a style that shows he knows there is a silliness factor at work and a punchline that puts an equally amusing, and astute, spin on the concept.

Which is to say, it’s an opportunity seized, rather than an obligation checked off or a quickie that allows the cartoonist a holiday even if nobody else is getting one.

The idea that someone could come up with a fresh Groundhog Day cartoon and a fresh George Santos cartoon in one swell foop is worth celebrating.

As noted before, I’m sick to death of George Santos cartoons, but recognize that, if cartoonists and other commentators stop commenting on him, he’ll simply fade into Congress along with the other empty suits who are there to represent party votes rather than their constituents.

At least chucks are edible.

And 50,000 years ago, I am quite sure nobody got the collywobbles over the thought of eating a woodchuck, because everybody was country back then and pragmatic about such things.

Which brings us to Joe Heller’s commentary on the Green Comet, because this country boy doesn’t agree with either side of this one. If modern people aren’t interested, it’s less because we’ve become jaded than it’s because we can’t see the sky anymore.

I wrote a curriculum on astronomy and folklore some years ago, with the technical assistance of Friends of the Blog Brian Fies and Sherwood Harrington, and when I mentioned the Milky Way, they cautioned me that most of my young readers had likely never seen it, and probably couldn’t.

I was gobsmacked. Growing up in the Adirondacks, the Milky Way was simply there. The idea that someone had never seen it was like saying they’re never seen a tree.

But a little poking around proved them right: City folks can’t see it, and the people who had seen it were out camping in deep wilderness.

Britain’s Natural History Museum has a discouraging report on the topic of light pollution and stars, in which a lead researcher predicts “If the brightening of the night sky continues at the current rate, a child born in a place where 250 stars are visible will only be able to see 100 stars there on their 18th birthday.”

The report goes on to list ways in which light pollution also messes with animal’s instincts and other critical environmental functions, but the loss of stars is enough to break my heart.

As far as the Green Comet goes, why bother to look up when there’s nothing to see?

Those primitive people on the left side of Heller’s cartoon would have been looking up, and they’d know the stars on the right side of Dylan Meconis‘s illustration. While the Greeks would see the picture she drew of Boötes the Herdsman, others in the Northern Hemisphere would see a large variety of images. But they’d all see something.

They were curious and thoughtful people, and however their imaginations filled in the spaces between stars, Boötes was critical, because, while a comet would certainly be interesting, Boötes had practical applications in their lives.

As I wrote then

I’ll confess that I never studied the stars as deeply as those ancients did, nor understood them half so well, but the Milky Way lit my path home on winter nights and it’s a shame that so few people can even see it, or the Green Comet, or the world around them, anymore.

10 thoughts on “CSotD: The Amazing Day With No Celebrations

  1. My best friend is from Punxsutawney and I had the privlege of visitng the town pre Bill Murray. Back then, Groundhog Day was just an excuse to drink the night before and break up the boredom of a long, cold Pennsylvania winter. Punxsy is in the middle of nowhere and people have had to make their own fun, especially back in the 1880s when the whole tradition started. Attendence was usually a few hundred townspeople, maybe a runner for the wire services, and a photographer. After dragging the bleary eyed, semi-hibernating woodchuck out of a heated drawer in a tree stump, everyone adjoined to the local schol for a pancake breakfast. I’m sure nearly every small town in America had traditions like this. The locals knew it was silly, but early February needs something goofy to break up the winter duldrums.

    Immediately after the movie premiered crowds of drunken college students began to decend and overwhelm the town on Groundhog Day becuase, again, what else is there to do in the dead of winter? Smart townsfolk took this opportunity to re-brand the town and pump up the local economy, which had been dying due the death of the coal and forestry industries in western Pennsylvania. Trust me, Groundshog Day in Punxsutawney today looks nothing like it did 40 years ago!

    1. Hey, it’s keeping the town alive. And how many towns have a cartoon groundhog of the doors of their municipal police cars? When you’re living in that part of the state (aka, not Pittsburgh or Erie) you grasp at any straw to keep the town going.

  2. Over at 7:06? Hell no, up on Gobbler’s Knob, the Punxustawney boys managed to keep it rolling until 7:30, by stretching and stretching and stretching . . . . . .

    Yes, I watched the broadcast live. I’m an old western PA boy myself (Johnstown), and this has meaning.

  3. Went looking for the comet last night since the skies were mostly clear for a change. Unfortunately, Foxconn (the potempkin factory and the country roads now turned to boulevards) has significantly added to the light pollution in our back yard. I could barely make out the Big Dipper.

    By the way, if Punky Groundhog DOESN’T see his shadow, what do we get? A month and a half more of winter?

  4. Groundhog day seems to be a shred of an an ancient festival.
    In Pagan-y stuff, it’s hard to separate documented information from 19th- and 20th-century fancy, but certainly the old European agricultural calendar started the seasons mid-way between the equinoxes and solstices (hence the solstice as Midsummer, with May Day as the start of summer, rather than the current reckoning)
    Candlemas, Imbolc, Groundhogs day–the first day of spring, right around now, seems to have been a day for weather divination. So the top-hatted officials in Punxustawney could as easily be wearing rough wool tunics, or Druid robes.

    Can’t see the stars these days, but we still know if the days are getting longer or shorter. Hail the increase of the sun!

    1. Tara – you beat me to pointing out Candlemas (I don’t know if it was ever a Holy Day of Obligation.) I can only add the old admonition “Half your wood and half your hay you must have by Candlemas Day,” – a warning that there was still a lot of Winter left. And yes, I have eaten groundhog AND ground hog. Both tasty if prepared correctly.

    2. Thanks Tara – I completely forgot about the shift in definition of a season in this application, but it seems like it was widespread in other cultures as well.

      Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year for trees and roughly corresponding to the original Midwinter (cf https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midwinter, not the winter solstice as per your comment above), corresponds to about now. It’s the end of rainy season and sap-rising around the Mediterranean. Here in Provence, the almond trees will blossom any day now (though we finally had a winter-like January, and looks like it’ll be postponed a week or so).

      And of course, the lunar New Year celebrated all around Asia around this time of year is known in China as the Spring Festival, for similar astronomical if somewhat inverted politico-(anti)religious reasons.

  5. Groundhog Day is not without its share of drama, just like in the House of Representatives.

    I prefer following the adventures of the albino groundhog Wiarton Willie in Wiarton, Ontario in Canada (which I’ve been through twice on vacation up there). He’s had his share of controversies / deaths, like Phil.

    And there’s this year’s tragedy in Quebec with the death of Fred la Marmotte before he could make his prediction.

    In Manchester, CT, where I live, we have Chuckles the groundhog at a local children’s museum. It doesn’t get the crowds that are seen in Pennsylvania, but it is fun driving by the place in the morning–they have a person in costume waving at all the passers by on their way to work. Last year I was driving by just after my annual eye appointment, and it was hard to tell which of us had the larger pupils (after having my dilated for the appointment).

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