A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
Today, in North America, it’s Groundhog Day. For the uninitiated, Groundhog Day is one of those folksy occasions when everybody from Malibu to Manhattan pretends we all still live in villages. The irony is it’s almost exclusively a mass media event, and although some of us might see it on TV, the vast majority mostly miss it and literally nobody I’ve ever even heard of has participated in person. Here’s the deal.
There’s no heavy tradition behind Groundhog Day. It was born and raised in the mind of Clymer H. Freas, a newspaper editor in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Sometime in the 1880s, he cobbled together some German folklore into a midwinter event that would bring local people into his town to spend money. From there, it swept across North America until it became woven into the fabric of our society. That’s it!
So, on February 2nd, all over the continent, various local notables trot out a groundhog or a reasonable facsimile (Alaska uses a marmot: New Orleans, a coypu.) the cameras roll and everybody waits to see what happens. According the Groundhog Day rules, if the groundhog sees his shadow (a sunny day) he will be frightened, go back into his den (cage) and there will be six more weeks of winter. However, if he doesn’t see his shadow (a cloudy day) he’ll hang out for a while and spring is on the way. There is absolute no mention of hordes of people scaring the crap out of him, or what happens if he’s a tough little bastard and shadows don’t scare him. Meteorology by rodent is obviously not an exact science.
However, trying to explain the apathetic popularity of Groundhog Day to someone who didn’t grow up with it is like trying to explain baseball to a Borneo head hunter or McDonalds to the French. They look at you like a Labrador puppy trying to figure out “Fetch!” (It’s the head tilt.)
But, despite the fact that virtually nobody in North America really cares about Groundhog Day — nobody wishes anybody “Happy Groundhog Day,” nobody marks it on the calendar (as in, “I don’t want to miss that action!”) or even makes any effort to attend the various ceremonies — we all still know about it, talk about it, and understand it. It’s like Kim Kardashian’s bum: it exists in our collective consciousness, but for no apparent reason. And that’s the magic of North American culture: most of it simply exists, without explanation, and Groundhog Day is a perfect example.