|Groundhog Day has always been my favorite holiday. For me it even beats
Guy Fawkes Day: I don't have to wrestle those pesky barrels of gunpowder into Parliament's
basement. Back in the good old days just before the invention of penicillin
my whole family used to gather around the groundhog hole back in the south forty just
before sunrise to watch the 'hog peek at his shadow.
After the family 'hog had appeared, we tikes would frolic with it a bit and then retire to the house and open up our Groundhog Day presents and sing groundhog carols. Mom and Dad were very traditional: We couldn't open any presents on Groundhog Day Eve; no, not even just one. As I got older and left home, I forgot some of the old traditions. Passing into the second year of the new millennium, I yearned for the old ways. This year I decided that on Groundhog Day my wife and I would renew my clan customs.
We got up early, about 3 a.m., so we could drive to Punxsutawny, Pa., and be there before dawn. Punxsutawny is the Mecca for we 'hog fanciers. But, a shadow passed over my heart as I drove into the Punxsutawny city limits such as they are. You can tell you're in town because the sign says so and it also warns that residents can't keep live poultry. My inauspicious greeting was a garish roadside stand hawking "Genuine Punxsutawny Phil Goats' Milk Fudge." It was the first sign of the crass commercialization of the holiday that I would witness.
For the uninitiated, Punxsutawny Phil is the name of the groundhog famous in song and story for appearing every February second.
My heart sank as we drove further into town. Hamburger stands advertised their wares by showing slavering groundhogs munching on dripping burgers. Front lawns were adorned with pink plastic groundhogs next to silvery gazing balls. In the back windows of all of the cars with Pennsylvania plates were little plastic bobble-head groundhogs sitting on the back window deck, nodding as if in time to the oompah music piped through loudspeakers on the light poles. I thought it was all too, too horrid. Except for those darling little yellow stick-on signs for car windows that said "Groundhog On Board!"
We stopped about 5:45 a.m., to get some coffee at "Punxsutawny Phil's Phish and Chips." I sat and meditated about the commercialization of a precious holiday while my wife read the local paper.
"It says here," she quoted, "that fried groundhog is quite savory, tasting much like chicken. And, the hides make excellent bootlaces."
A tear fell from my eye.
We arrived at the "hole" just as the sun was about to peek over the Poconoes. The hole was a slap-dash plywood pen holding an unhappy, rather ratty 'hog on a stage. In no way did it resemble the sleek, brown beauty I remembered from my childhood. It turned out that we were late, as these things go. There was a moshpit gang crowding the stage batting beachballs around. We were on the periphery, near a man in a groundhog suit ringing a bell next to a plastic groundhog hole that said "GIVE" on it.
"You folks here to see that groundrat?"
"Yes. When does Phil usually come out?"
"Hell, Ol' Phil don't come out till noon, one o'clock. First we have the Christine Auguillera look-alike contest and then Ricky Martin's nephew sings for an hour."
He looked over to where I had parked the car.
"You folks came all the way from Ohio to see that varmint? Haw, haw, haw."
He actually laughed like that.
When his laughing fit ended, he gave us a sneer. "The real Phil died thirteen years ago. Since then we been using one of those clockwork dummies we got from the Disney folks."
He stuck out a grimy paw. "How about kicking a buck into the kitty?"
We'd come all this way, but I couldn't stay around for this travesty. My wife snickered as we walked back to the car. She slept through the drive home. She woke up when we pulled into the drive.
"Home already?" she asked. "Darn, I wanted to pick up some bootlaces before we left."
© copyright 2003, Pete Nofel