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Pieces of the Past — Candlemas

January 31, 2024

Until this week, I had never heard of CANDLEMAS. A story about it was featured on WJET over the weekend. Primarily a Catholic tradition, the weeklong practice was a pretty big deal in Europe.

After the reformation, particularly in Germany, there were efforts to pull away from the church and make it more festive. Feb. 2 meant residents tapped a keg and had a beer while watching a BEAR get woken up. Bear became scarce so the Germans switched to a badger.

As more Germans found their way to the Keystone State the annual tradition was yet again changed. A more docile animal was needed. In Germany, the word for groundhog translates to “Bear Rat”. Thus groundhogs were used in several counties. It wasn’t until the newspaper in Punxsutawney mentioned the German tradition that a “day” might be assigned and an “event” created in 1887 that tapping a keg on Feb. 2 became “Groundhog Day” in 1888.

The local Elks Club is credited with creating the “Inner Circle” a few years later. The Inner Circle plans the annual celebration on “Gobblers’ Knob” each year. The group successfully promoted the date and local media picked it up with fervor. When WPME the local radio station went on the air. Its General Manager became part of the Inner Circle. WPME was charged with alerting radio stations all over the state to the results. I used to get my crack at Charlie by calling him at 6:45 a.m. every year. Sadly, Charlie was murdered by his daughter’s boyfriend and my direct connection to Groundhog Day was lost. Until a kid I trained named Chris Lash ended up in Punxsutawney.

There are some very interesting backstories about Punxsutawney and the town’s celebration. “Gobbler’s Knob” has a story of its own. As it has been told, Gobbler’s Knob got its name in the 1860s. It seems two hunters were lost up there in a historically bad blizzard. The two had gone days with nothing to eat. They spotted a groundhog that had been roused from hibernation. They shot the varmint and GOBBLED IT UP!

The all-time turnout record at Gobbler’s knob was 2,500. That pretty much stood till the movie came out. Last year, after the pandemic was considered over, officials said that the crowd was over 30,000! Five times the registered population of Punxsutawney,

Phil’s name by the way is credited to the Inner Circle. Local folklore has it that it was named after Prince Philip. Not the one alive today but one from long ago.

By the way, Punxsutawney Phil has a 35% accuracy rate. Roughly the same rate as a stopped clock!

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