Dare to Believe in a Magic Groundhog: One Morning in Punxsutawney

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Dare to Believe in a Magic Groundhog: One Morning in Punxsutawney

An hour and a half outside Pittsburgh, nestled deep in Amish Country and the Christmas tree capital of America, is the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. A small town that for one day a year becomes thrust on the global stage for their magic weather prognosticating groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil.

But the day is also steeped in much more magic than just a prognosticating groundhog. Phil himself is entrusted to the Inner Circle, the local groundhog club who takes care of him and reads his predictions. The club surrounds itself in the lore of Phil, like that he is the same groundhog that first started the tradition in 1889, that he speaks a secret language called Groundhogese, and that the only one who can translate his words is the leader of the Inner Circle with a magic acacia cane.

Groundhog Day is one of those strange American traditions that one can easily forget about until the day of February 2, when a news article catches your eye and you curiously see if Phil has predicted six more weeks of winter or if spring will come early. But to go to the event in person is to experience an entirely new perception of Groundhog Day.

The final celebrations start at 3 a.m. the morning of, as everyone journeys up to Gobbler’s Knob, the natural amphitheater hidden in the forest where Phil’s stump sits upon a stage. For three and a half hours the town puts on a variety show, as a slew of guests sing and dance while we wait for Phil to make his prediction. But Groundhog Day festivities occur throughout the week in Punxsutawney, including a banquet the night before and a gala.

The event is part talent show, part sport’s game, and part local festival. During my visit I was even lucky enough to see a special addition to the festivities: a wedding. The two wore fur hats and were married by the former President of the Inner Circle as a thousand onlookers cheered them on through their vows. At the end glitter was shot into the air with cannons, sparkling in the pitch black 5 a.m. darkness.

I asked Inner Circle member AJ “Rainmaker” Dereume, Phil’s handler (you may recognize him as the one who hoists Phil from his stump), if weddings were common. He said they do happen, but not often. His surprise at the rare event was obvious; as the wedding march theme began he immediately became entranced by the spectacle as we all stopped asking questions to watch.

Besides Dereume I also talked to the Inner Circle’s resident historian Butch “Iceman” Philliber, who could recite the history of the club with ease. He was less concerned with the magic of Phil and more with the long history around the holiday, from its German Roots to its evolution into the event we see today. Punxsatawny’s history as a coal mining town was also vital, as that infrastructure and subsequent miner revolts established a stronger medical and police presence in the area than most comparably sized towns had during the 20th century. He also described the tremendous impact the Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day had on the community. A member since 1988, with his father being a member before him, the legacy of the celebration came to life through him. I even asked about the all-male nature of the Inner Circle and he seemed hopeful a woman would one day make it past the nomination stage to join the ranks of top-hat adorned guardians.

There is a divide amongst Inner Circle members between falling on the side of magic versus history. When I asked about the origin of the Acacia cane, Philliber told me about Inner Circle member Dr. Lorenzo, a prominent figure in the club from the 1920s to the 1950s, and a leading developer in the medical practice of installing hip screws. He credits Lorenzo with the emergence of the cane. However, other members say the cane was carved by Phil himself, hinting toward a longer history. But no matter what side you take on the details, the belief in Phil’s weather predicting abilities is absolute.

The protection of Phil does seem to be a family affair. Dereume’s father was also an Inner Circle member, and many locals described their ties to the Inner Circle. It’s an honor to be inducted, but a costly one. The Inner Circle is the group who funds the event and members lose money from being involved. But that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone because they’re not there for money: they’re there for Phil.

So what makes up the Groundhog Day festivities? Dozens of musical performances rife with Groundhog Day parody songs (“No Sleep Till Brooklyn” becomes “No Sleep Till Punxsy”), frequent dances, a flame-thrower, and chants. So many chants. In between every act at least one would erupt from the audience, whether it be “We Want Phil” or a simple and progressively faster series of “Phil! Phil! Phil!” There was also the very popular “USA” that seemed to get the most booming response from the crowd.

That’s the thing about Punxsutawney: it’s not just in Amish country, it’s in Trump country. The drive up was littered with Trump 2020, and many Trump 2024, signs. Between MAGA hats and thrown to the side American flag masks, the local demographic was overwhelmingly obvious. But somehow this background melted away as we all forgot the real world and instead entered the world of Phil, of magic and belief.

At 6:30 a.m. the fireworks show started, ushering the imminent arrival of Phil. We all stretched our necks and watched in awe. Philliber said it would be the best 6 a.m. fireworks I would ever see and he was right. Several of John Williams’ themes for Star Wars played in the background as our excitement only grew. For three hours we stood in the cold, our toes growing numb, waiting for the moment we came to see..

I can only describe the appearance of Phil as if the biggest celebrity you can think of emerged from a hole in the ground and floated in the air. The screaming was comparable to a Comic Con audience; Phil, the immortal magical groundhog, was finally there. By this time there were thousands of us at Gobbler’s Knob; in fact, we were told it was the largest weekday crowd in Groundhog Day history.

And when Phil finally did give his prediction, six more weeks of winter, the crowd erupted into what I can only describe as frenetic noise. Were people disappointed? Of course, but the scroll that described Phil’s prediction assured us that even winter could be a blessing. We were screaming at the very idea of being in his presence when his verdict was given.

And then, it was over. The Inner Circle and Phil stayed on the stage for anyone who wanted to come up and take a picture with the magic groundhog. They assured us they will get through everyone waiting, as there is nothing else more important. But then everyone else walked out the exit of Gobbler’s Knob, the dawn rising above us on a beautiful sunny day over snowy fields, and went home.

Would I recommend going to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day? Well, if standing in the cold for three hours, cheering at every cheesy song you hear, and losing your mind at the sight of a 10 pound rodent doesn’t sound like fun to you, then I wouldn’t make the trip. But if you want to believe in the power of Phil, if you want to love something without hesitation or cringe, if you want to step into a world of nothing but magic, then there is no better place than Gobbler’s Knob on Groundhog Day.

One man shouting next to me summarizes the whole event better than I can: life is short, praise the groundhog!

Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila.