February 3, 2008

The dumbest holiday known to mankind

No, it's not Christmas, as much as I'm not a fan. I mean, if I came back from the dead, I'd pretty much expect my birthday to be a big deal.

I'm talking about the momentous occasion we as a culture marked yesterday, Groundhog Day. It's by no means the silliest tradition we humans (or we Americans) engage in, but it should win some kind of award for illogical futility. A quick review: On February 2 every year, in various places throughout the county, a groundhog emerges from hibernation. Humans are watching. If the creature sees its shadow, we're in for six more weeks of winter.

Some behind-the-scene facts about this process: It originated in the folklore of German farmers in the 16th century. Yes, Cindy, very good—there are indeed no groundhogs in Germany. Initially, it concerened badgers, which are completely different animals. But German immigrants settling in Pennsylvania in the 19th century apparently needed some kind of overgrown rat to make sense of their lives of endless toil, and when they couldn't locate a psychic badger, they transferred the belief onto the local woodchuck variety, the groundhog.

Where do I even begin with the absolute inanity of this tradition? Let's make a list.

1. How does a human being tell if a groundhog sees its shadow or not? Does it tell us? Doesn't it depend on the shade around its home? And if it's actually just a matter of whether the groundhog stays aboveground for a while, wouldn't it "see its shadow" if it's hungry or horny? What the hell dies weather have to do with it?

2. Six more weeks of winter? What's the alternative, no more winter? When's the last time winter ended on February 2nd?

3. Is that more winter in Pennsylvania only? What about where the other predicting groundhogs live? (There was one in the kiddie zoo near where I grew in New Jersey.) Do they recalibrate expectations for groundhogs in Minnesota? Nevada? The Florida Keys?

4. I'm sure in the Middle Ages, there were several dozen holidays that seems like demented superstition by our modern semienlightened standards. There was probably some kind of chicken festival, a feast of the wildebeest, a wombat jamboree. As centuries passed, we started figuring out that these things were more trouble than they're worth (and we got too busy watching television), so we one by one deposited them in the junk bin of history. So why is Groundhog Day the last holdout? Why does this dumb-ass tradition hang on, if only in a CNN onscreen news crawl? And don't tell me "because it's fun"—that argument is great for another ridiculously outdated holiday, Halloween. But unless I am far more of a social outcast then I ever realized, there is no such thing as a Groundhog Day party. Ricky's NYC doesn't covert itself into "your Groundhog Day headquarters" every January 15.

By the way, in case you're curious, the dean of Groundhogs, Punxsutwaney Phil, saw his shadow yesterday. Six more weeks of winter, folks. But you can rest easy—this means global warming is indeed a myth.