What do Copernicus, Bill Murray, PETA, and Sarah Palin all have in common? They’re unlikely allies in the War on Groundhog Day. While the War on Christmas has received a fair amount of media attention in the last few years, the equally troubling War on Groundhog Day has gone almost unnoticed.
Groundhog Day is a holiday devoted to honoring the groundhog’s innate ability to predict and/or control the weather. In a typical Groundhog Day celebration, participants watch as a groundhog begins to emerge from its burrow. If the groundhog retreats back into the burrow, winter will continue for another six weeks; otherwise, winter will be mild and end early.
The first known Groundhog Day celebration occurred in 1841; however, the War on Groundhog Day actually began almost 300 years earlier, when Copernicus proposed that the Earth revolves around the Sun. While this theory seems harmless enough, Copernicus didn’t stop there — he also claimed that the seasons were caused by the angle of the Earth’s axis to the plane of its orbit. This latter hypothesis was a major assault on the very foundation of groundhog-based meteorology: that groundhogs control the length of the seasons.
The attacks on groundhog-based science continued. In 1635, the first public school in what would later be the United States was established. The school’s science curriculum completely ignored groundhog behavior as a factor influencing weather, setting a precedent that would be followed by almost every other public school for centuries to come.
In 1824, mathematician Joseph Fourier discovered the greenhouse effect, the process by which increasing amounts of greenhouse gasses can cause the Earth’s temperature to rise. This would seem to support groundhog-based science — carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and groundhogs exhale carbon dioxide — but the scientific establishment to this day dismisses groundhog breath as “insignificant when compared to the greenhouse gas contributions of human society”.
After Fourier’s discovery, the war on groundhog science intensified and became even more polarized, with people on both sides arguing that the greenhouse effect supports their position. Finally, on February 2, 1841, a small but dedicated group of scientists and educators decided to set aside one day each year to teach the public about the relationship between groundhog behavior and the weather, and thus, Groundhog Day was born. The two sides reached an uneasy détente, and the 150 years following the first Groundhog Day is often referred to as the Cold War on Groundhog Day, or the Groundhog Cold War.
By the late 20th century, mainstream science had all but abolished groundhog-based meteorology: a thorough survey of scientific papers and textbooks from that era found almost no mention of groundhog behavior in relation to the length of winter. However, during that same period, the concept of groundhogs predicting or controlling the length of winter was well-established in popular culture. This all changed in 1993 with the release of the movie Groundhog Day. Although the film features a Groundhog Day celebration, the plot focuses on a 24-hour time loop. In fact, most of the promotional materials for the movie depict one or more of the lead actors and a clock, with no groundhog images at all. This can mean only one thing: anti-groundhog forces produced this movie in an attempt to change the meaning of “Groundhog Day” in popular culture. They appear to have succeeded — in 2009, a survey conducted by the American Association for Groundhog Meteorology determined that 67% of Americans think of “a day repeating over and over again” when they hear the phrase “Groundhog Day”, while only 27% think of “groundhogs predicting or controlling the weather” (an additional 6% chose “other”; when pressed, most people in this group say that Groundhog Day “sounds like something involving pork sausage”).
Groundhog Day suffered another surprising assault in 2009: Alaska’s then-governor Sarah Palin signed SB 58 into law, establishing Marmot Day, not Groundhog Day, as Alaska’s annual February 2 holiday. In addition to excluding groundhogs, Marmot day also makes no mention of the length of winter or of weather at all.
The War on Groundhog Day seems to be intensifying — in the weeks leading up to Groundhog Day 2010, PETA called for the retirement of Punxsutawney Phil, the country’s most famous weather-predicting groundhog. They proposed that Phil be replaced by an animatronic groundhog, but fortunately, the idea of a Robotic Groundhog Day hasn’t gained much traction. So far.
Photo credits: timeline created with Timeline 3D. Sarah Palin picture from cnbc.com. Groundhog Day celebration picture from groundhog.org. Robotic rodent picture from zhuniverse.com. All other pictures from Wikipedia.