Today, according to long-held tradition, a famous furry rodent will lend his talents to the world of weather forecasting by predicting the coming of spring.
In the city of Punxsutawney, Pa., officials have been spreading the annual hype in preparation for the star of the show, Phil the Groundhog, to emerge from his heated burrow under a simulated tree stump.
Tradition has it that at exactly 7:25 a.m., on Feb. 2, the furry fellow is pulled from his hideaway by city officials wearing top hats and cut-away coats. He's held high enough for the waiting world to clearly determine if he manages to see his shadow.
I've heard Phil's story every year since I was a kid. And, while watching the coverage of the squirmy brown bundle of fur on the morning television shows, I've wondered just how the odd tradition came to be part of the life of that region of Pennsylvania.
Well, with a bit of research, I learned the background of Phil's story - and much more than I had ever wanted to know about animal weather forecasting.
It was in 1723 that the Delaware Indians settled in the Punxsutawney area, about 90 miles from Pittsburgh and halfway between the Allegheny and Susquehanna Rivers. The town's name came from an Indian phrase that means "the town of sand flies."
Even before the Delaware tribe moved to the area, they honored the groundhog, considering him their ancestral grandfather.
German settlers arrived in the region in the 1700s, too. It was their tradition to celebrate Candlemas Day to mark the mid point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.
They began using the Indian's honored "ancestral animal," the groundhog, to demonstrate the traditional Candlemas Day prediction regarding the coming of spring. If the animal saw its shadow on Feb. 2, that would indicate six more weeks of winter were in store for the area. But, if the day was cloudy and no shadow was seen, "spring was just around the corner."
Although Phil and his Punxsutawney pals don't have the technological backing available at the Weather Channel, the whole world will be deeply interested in the activities in the Pennsylvania town today, Feb. 2.
Then, when the crowds fade away and normal life resumes in Punxsutawney on Feb. 3, Phil will return to his full-time home, a comfortable climate-controlled space in the Punxsutawney Library, to await his next appearance on the world weather forecasting stage.
Since all successful practices and programs across this country are copied in an attempt to duplicate the results, Phil's traditional story has been a natural for reproduction by dozens of other communities. Among these are such Phil wana-bes as Gus the Groundhog in Athens, Ga., French Creek Freddie in French Creek, W. Va., Woody the Woodchuck in Howell, Mich., and our own Dunkirk Dave in Dunkirk, N.Y.
Unfortunately, for the many Phil imitators from coast to coast, none has reached the fame that allowed Punxsutawney to capture Groundhog Day as its own place on the map and on the calendar.
Of course, we're all hoping that Phil's predictions on this Groundhog Day, 2012, will insure that "spring is just around the corner." However, reality forces us to accept the fact that only Mother Nature knows when the days will warm, the crocuses will bloom and the creeks will once again sing in the woods.
But then, her timetable has always been good enough for me.