Groundhog Phil


Punxsutawney Phil is the famous groundhog out of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, whose emergence from “hibernation” is of considerable media coverage since the late 1800 in Pennsylvania. If the rodent emerges from its nap and sees its shadow, it thinks it is still the middle of winter, returns to its borrow and sleeps another 40 days.

A similar tradition in Serbia involves a bear that gets out of its nap and if the day gets a shadow, there’s prediction of another 40 days of winter, but if cloudy, spring is at the corner. The rodent groundhog replaced the bear in Pennsylvania but the prediction remains the same. Winter is either delayed or spring comes early.

It is clearly a temperate zone rite much observed by Germans in Pennsylvania where Groundhog Lodges are built, social events held, speeches made and a skit is staged for entertainment. It enlivens the winter doldrums, and given the tradition of the Amish, that’s a lot of doldrums to overcome.

The preferred dialect is German imposing itself on everyone, and if you do not sprechen sie Deutch, a fine is levied per word of non-Aleman, a nickel, dime, or a quarter, put on a bowl at the center of the table and democratically decided on how it is used.

The celebration got a boost in 1993 when Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, et al, made a movie of the same title; a Broadway musical is slated in 2017.

The movie involves a misanthropic Bill Murray caught on a time warp that kept one day repeating, and the self-indulgent Murray character got worst until he decided to make a turn for the better, and he breaks the spell, and gets the girl as well.

The medieval mind was replete with rites and rituals to celebrate the incidence of being profoundly human since we celebrated in doctrine and dogma the confluence of what was then thought as the separation of the mundane and the profound.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), contemporaneous to the Augustinian Martin Luther (1483-1546) who triggered the Protestant Reformation, was a third order Dominican monk who was also a polyglot and polymath; he practiced as a physician, economist, a classics scholar, diplomat, translator, and governor. He had a doctorate in canon law. He was born and died in Royal Prussia, a region of the Kingdom of Poland.
But he suggested the unthinkable at the time: that the earth was not the center of the universe. Think about it. The dogmas and doctrines of the Catholic Church claims the biblical witness expressed in the metaphors of the day as belonging to a three-tier universe of which the Earth is at the center between heaven and hell. The Reformation was no different. It, too, missed out on the sola fidei vs. sola scriptura, faith vs. authority, debate as the lone source of power in the ecclesiastical structure.

Today, the Catholic Church and children of the Reformation called ‘evangelicals’ are still quarreling over the source of authority and power, between the infallibility of the Rome or the inerrancy of Biblia. Nobody cares. The issue, in and out of any religious ritual, is whether a rite points to what is authentically human, not who gets a bigger bacon.

So it does not appear like we are yet done with Punxsutawney Phil. We need the rite and ritual of the groundhog. Nothing could be more mundane than a groundhog to represent the quality of a human being, who also goes by external signs to determine its choice; in this case, the power of a shadow.

… to die, to sleep,
to sleep, perchance to Dream;
aye, there’s the rub,
for in that sleep of death,
what dreams may come …

The indecisiveness is well known. Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential contender vs. Obama used the phrase “groundhog day” to refer to a repetition cycle, indecisiveness prevails in the negotiations between the U.S. and the DPRK (North Korea) on nuclear weapons. In this case, Pyongyang keeps pushing while Washington wants to nail a treaty down.

Of course, no one really takes the prediction of Punxsutawney Phil seriously. A survey since the tradition started shows that the groundhog was accurate 37 percent of the time, and that’s only between two choices. So we really do not go with its prediction. This year predicts a longer winter, but who cares? We need the rite to affirm our humanity, much maligned of late because we did choose to pollute our waters, lands, and skies, and continue to choose the same way, which is to say, as humanly as the groundhog does, in most everything we do.

What decision have we made recently that shows this indecisiveness? My neighbors’ daughter from upstate New York is anything but indecisive. The U.S. northeast denizen decided to mosey over the tropics at a time when New England down the East Coast to Virginia is being battered by snow. She did not see her shadow; she came over.

OK. So we get intermittent rain. Wait 15 minutes each time it drizzles and the sun comes out. Longer winter is back “there.” Tropical “here” is canoe paddling. Row. Row. And. Row.

Jaime R. Vergara | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Jaime Vergara previously taught at SVES in the CNMI. A peripatetic pedagogue, he last taught in China but makes Honolulu, Shenyang, and Saipan home. He can be reached at

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