Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is halfway between the winter solstice & the spring equinox, and has its roots in Candlemas which has even older pagan roots.

Every February 2nd since 1887, people have gathered in the small Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day, the day Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) predicts whether there will be six more weeks of winter or an early spring. This idea of marking the transition between winter and spring existed long before Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day sits halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

Before Groundhog Day

February 2nd sits halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The ancient Celts of Europe marked this solar event with a festival which, after the Celts made it to the British Isles, became the the Imbolc festival. Imbolc began at sundown on February 1st and ended at the following sundown on February 2nd. In Ireland it evolved to honor the pagan goddess Brigid. When Christianity took over Ireland Brigid the pagan goddess became Brigid the Catholic Saint whose feast day (conveniently) was also on February 1st. The church Christianized the following day as well and made February 2nd Candlemas, the day commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

Candlemas has its own customs. People take their candles to the church to be blessed, a reminder that Jesus is the light of the world. For some, Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas season and is the date they take down their Christmas decorations. German speaking areas of Europe also marked Candlemas as “Badger Day”, a folkloric day when a badger would help predict the weather. If a badger was seen in the sun on February 2nd there would be a “second winter”, ie. four more weeks of winter.

Punxsutawney

The tradition emigrated from Germany to North America where the groundhog was substituted for the badger, since groundhogs are native to the areas were these immigrants settled (especially Pennsylvania). Similarly, where badgers weren’t common in parts of Europe other regional animals had been used such as foxes and bears.

The small western Pennsylvanian town of Punxsutawney has the most famous observation of this tradition, creating what has become the modern day Groundhog Day. The first “official” event was in 1887, where six more weeks of winter was predicted. Groundhog Day is presided over by a group of men in top hats & tuxes dubbed the “Inner Circle.” This amusing secret-ish society originally began as members of the Punxsutawney Elks Lodge, where the groundhog was not only use for weather prediction, but was also served as food at the lodge.

Phil the groundhog wasn’t a named element of the ritual until 1961. As the tradition goes he is the only groundhog to have ever predicted the weather for Groundhog Day, on account of the “magical elixir” he drinks every year which adds 7 more years of life, keeping him alive so long. Otherwise, a normal groundhog has a life expectancy of about 3 years (or up to 14 in captivity). Phil’s popularity as the prognosticator of prognosticators, the seer of seers, has led to many imitators.

Punxsutawney Phil tends to pick “6 more weeks of winter” and has debatable accuracy.

Track Record

Much is made of Phil’s prognostication track record. As of 2021, he has called for:
• Saw his shadow / 6 more weeks of winter: 105 times (84%)
• No shadow / early spring: 20 times (16%)
• No record of his prediction: 10 times

Stormfax has said that Phil has 39% accuracy in predicting the weather, but the Inner Circle has said that Phil is 100% accurate. Any “wrong” predictions must have been Inner Circle error in interpreting Phil’s prediction.

Added info: the 1993 movie Groundhog Day was filmed not in Punxsutawney but in Woodstock, Illinois. The movie was so popular that Woodstock started hosting their own Groundhog Day festival. Meanwhile the popularity of the film took the Punxsutawney Groundhog Day event from attracting around 2,000 visitors to bringing in tens of thousands each year with the 2020 celebration bringing in an estimated 40,000 people (about 8 times the town’s population).

Centralia

The lost Pennsylvania mining town with an uncontrollable fire raging underground.

For most people who have heard of Centralia they know it as a spooky abandoned ghost-town. They might even know it as the inspiration for the film adaptation of Silent Hill. But before Centralia was abandoned it was a normal small Pennsylvania mining town like most others in the area.

The abandoned Old PA Route 61, now known as the “Graffiti Highway”, before being covered in dirt by the state in 2020 to discourage visitors

The Fire

In the spring of 1962 one of the town trash dumps, which had previously been a strip mine, was set on fire in an attempt to clean it up for Memorial Day. The fire got out of hand and spread down into the abandoned mining tunnels below the town. The fire was not put out.

Given the estimated amount of anthracite coal under Centralia the fire could burn for another 250 years. Temperatures easily exceed 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. As the fire rages underground it expels gases above ground and causes the ground to shift both up & down. Even as roads buckled and sinkholes collapsed people continued to live in town.

The fire was relatively benign until late 1979 when it was discovered that the basement of Coddingtons gas station had a floor temperature of 136° F and the lot across from the station had steam coming out of the ground. The gas station was in the direct path of the underground fire that was aggressively spreading in multiple directions. In the 1980s hot mine gasses were spewing from the ground and into homes. Residents were sickened by carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

The fire has spread across multiple fronts generally moving southwest but there is an additional fourth front to the East.

Eminent Domain

In 1980 there were around 1,000 residents of Centralia. As the fire spread across multiple fronts, and the toxic conditions worsened, people began to move out in larger numbers. By 1992 there were only 5 remaining residents. What was left of the town was claimed by the state of Pennsylvania under eminent domain. Per an agreement with the state, as the remaining residents move away or die, the state demolishes their homes.

As of 2017 one of the few remaining homes left in Centralia.

Today there are still a few die-hard residents remaining. Centralia is now a grid of streets with no street signs, only four buildings, and a few cemeteries. Sidewalks are interrupted by the occasional cut-in for driveways which no longer exist. There are walkway stairs that go nowhere. You could drive through Centralia and not even notice. Nature has reclaimed most of the space that used to be people’s homes and businesses as the underground fire continues to burn.

Rather than being a freaky ghost-town, Centralia is a sad story about the end of a small town community. The documentary the Town that Was does a great job documenting the town’s history and its slow disappearance.