For a relatively short month, February has quite a few holidays, beginning with Feb. 2, Groundhog Day. Florida winters are generally mild, so the celebration lacks the impact of the Groundhog Day parties that take place up north. For example, in western Pennsylvania thousands of people gather to watch groundhog Punxsutawney Phil emerge from his burrow to forecast the onset of spring…or not.

            The Sunshine State doesn’t have groundhogs, aka woodchucks, although they do have armadillos with similar habits, such as burrowing beneath your house and tunneling all over your property. However, armadillos are nocturnal, spend most of their time underground and are probably not going to emerge during the day to give weather reports. What’s a Northeast Florida weather worrier to do? A Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens hedgehog is a more authentic weather prognosticator, and perhaps a descendant of the first animal weather prophets.

 The originators of Groundhog Day were 16th century German farmers, who endured long winters, so they had a lot of time on their hands to make up folklore that would presage the coming of spring. According to medieval superstition, hibernating animals emerge from their dens to check out the weather on Candlemas (Feb. 2), midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, Observing the activity of hedgehogs gave them the idea that if the sun was shining underground critters would be frightened by their shadows and return to their burrows to sleep through six more weeks of winter. On a cloudy day, the hedgehogs would stay above ground, signaling that it was time for the farmers to get busy planting sauerkraut.

During the 19th century a group of resourceful German immigrants, known as Pennsylvania Dutch, settled in Punxsutawney, PA, where there was a hedgehog shortage. However, on their way to their new home they observed an abundance of road kill along the Pennsylvania Turnpike and said, “Ist dass ein todt (dead) hedgehog?” So they adopted the Marmota monax (groundhog) as their weather predictor.

On a slow news day in 1886, Clymer Freas, editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit, convinced a group of local businessmen and groundhog hunters to hike to Gobbler’s Knob, where they watched for the resident groundhog to emerge. Apparently he saw his shadow and returned to sleep six more weeks. Nevertheless, that was the first time folks celebrated the great weather prophet they named Punxsutawney Phil.

*The Final Word…I hate to disappoint those who regard Phil and fellow groundhogs as great seers of the upcoming season, but weather has nothing to do with the forecast. The fact is, groundhogs have been snoozing since October. Much like my spouse the Binmeister they emerge with one thing on their minds, breakfast! Some don’t make it in their haste to dash across the Turnpike looking for dandelions, clover and grubs that the average woodchuck chucks.

 Lucky Phil, he lives in upscale quarters at the Punxsutawney Library, where he is fed dog food and ice cream and sips a magical drink (Yuengling?) that is said to extend his life. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club throws a three-day bash leading up to Groundhog Day, when Phil is moved to a heated burrow beneath a simulated tree stump and pulled out at 7:25 a.m., Feb. 2 to make his prediction. With a cushy job like that, it’s no wonder Phil shows no sign of retiring or dying.

However, he did gain fame in the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray as Phil Connors, who said: “You want a prediction about the weather: You’re asking the wrong Phil. I’ll give you a winter prediction: it’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.”