Written by Danielle Taylor | Intro photo courtesy of PennLive.com
By the time Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his stump at sunrise last February 2, I had been standing in the cold on Gobbler’s Knob for nearly four hours, eagerly awaiting this moment. Roughly 18,000 others surrounded me there, and thanks to the newscasts from all the major networks on site, millions more around the world could watch live as the Prognosticator of Prognosticators looked for his shadow. The top-hatted and tuxedo-clad members of his Inner Circle set him on his stump and leaned in for word of his forecast. In the midst of the crowd, I found myself leaning in too, anxious to hear the groundhog’s message.
As a relatively new resident of Pennsylvania, 2018 was my first opportunity to celebrate Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, and I jumped at the chance to go all in. Rusty Snyder, owner of the Double Diamond Deer Ranch in Cook Forest, is a fellow Phil aficionado, and we did our best to make the most of this quirky holiday.
Our three-day celebration started on February 1 at the Members Reception, an exclusive event just for official members of the Groundhog Club. Phil and several members of the Inner Circle were there, and I gladly waited in line for a photo with the world’s most famous forecaster while snacking on groundhog cookies and punch. From there, we headed to the entertaining Groundhog Banquet where we got our first taste of Phil’s international appeal. People in the audience had traveled to Punxsutawney from Saudi Arabia and Japan for the opportunity to get up ridiculously early and stand outside in the cold the next morning — in the middle of the woods, in the middle of the night, and during the middle of winter, no less — just to take part in the legend.
After a few quick hours of sleep, we woke up around 2 a.m. on Groundhog Day to head out for the trek to Gobbler’s Knob. The gates at the Knob open at 3 a.m., and Phil phans can either take a shuttle from downtown or hike up the hill, just as the first hardy believers did in 1887. Now, however, the faithful followers can enjoy a wildly entertaining show for the hours leading up to Phil’s sunrise prognostication. Inner Circle members Dan “Moonshine” McGinley and Dave “Thunder Conductor” Gigliotti kept the crowd pumped on the Knob with heart-pounding music and lots of local talent on stage, and as the big moment approached, fireworks went off to commemorate the occasion. Then the full Inner Circle came on stage, and all the news cameras fired up as the crowd quieted down.
Inner Circle president Bill Deeley knocked on Phil’s stump at the center of the stage with his acacia cane, and handler A.J. Dereume reached inside to bring Phil out to his adoring crowd. According to legend, the current president is the only one who can interpret Phil’s prediction in Groundhogese, and only if he is holding the acacia cane. Still, everyone on stage and in the crowd quieted down when Phil made his prediction, as if hoping to hear the forecast straight from the groundhog’s mouth. After a moment of listening intently, Deeley directed vice president Jeff “Fair Weatherman” Lundy to read the correct scroll of the two they had prepared and announce Phil’s official prediction to the crowd. Six more weeks of winter!
Afterward, Phil’s handlers whisked him off to the main building at Gobbler’s Knob for photo ops with his fans. Rusty and I chatted with a few people, and I got a photo with Jim Cantore and Jen Carfagno from the Weather Channel. We left the Knob and went back into town for a tasty buffet breakfast at the Eagles Club, a few fun events at the Celebration Tent in Barclay Square, souvenir shopping at the Groundhog Club Headquarters and Official Souvenir Shop at the Chamber of Commerce, the craft show at the Punxsutawney Area Community Center, and a visit to the Weather Discovery Center. The Groundhog Club and other businesses around Punxsy had organized tons of other fun things to see and do for the rest of the day, such as Groundhog Day weddings at the civic center, a showing of the “Groundhog Day” movie at the community center, a tour of the Phantastic Phil sculptures around town, and an all-request dueling pianos show at The Burrow. However, Rusty and I were ready for our naps, so we each drove home to catch up on our rest before coming back the next day.
A friend out west connected me with someone he knew who had traveled from Colorado to Punxsutawney with her husband, and we met up on February 3 at the s’mores cookout in Barclay Square. Lisa and Ricky Nguyen had long been fans of Punxsutawney Phil and Groundhog Day from afar, so once they were here, they went all in.
“Groundhog Day has been on my bucket list for a while,” Lisa said. “It’s so quirky — I mean, who wakes up at 3 a.m. to see a rodent prognosticate? Part of it was also the curiosity — does Punxsutawney REALLY turn into a party town for this event? And, of course, who couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to honor the cute, adorable namesake creature?”
While in town, Lisa and Ricky attended the Groundhog Club’s Members Reception, looked all around town for as many Phantastic Phil sculptures as they could find, participated in the Groundhog Day scavenger hunt, ran in the Groundhog Day 5K, sang along to the “Pennsylvania Polka” and “I Got You Babe” from the movie at the dueling pianos performance, and of course, joined in the fun at the prognostication. We all ended our multi-day celebration at the Groundhog Ball, an elegant event attended by members of the Inner Circle and Phil himself.
“My trip to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day 2018 has truly become a highlight of the year,” Lisa shared, looking back on the event several months later. “I gush that it was more memorable than our honeymoon. I mean, how often do you get to celebrate such a fun, quirky holiday in the perfect small town? All in the name of an adorable critter?”
Fortunately, you can celebrate Groundhog Day every February, and you can visit Punxsutawney and see Phil in his Burrow at the town library year round. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club is also hard at work developing a new visitor center with interactive displays and a theater at Gobbler’s Knob, currently scheduled to open in summer 2019.
When you come to visit, be sure to enjoy the true spirit of the holiday and the legend. As one of the members of the Inner Circle noted at last year’s banquet, “There are a lot of serious things in this world. Groundhog Day isn’t one of them.”
For more information on Punxsutawney Phil and Groundhog Day, go to VisitPAGO.com or call (814) 849-5197.
Groundhog Day 101
The legend of Groundhog Day has its roots in Candlemas, a holiday brought over to the New World by European settlers. According to tradition, if a badger or hedgehog emerged from hibernation to a sunny day on February 2, therefore casting a shadow, winter would last several more weeks. European newcomers found groundhog Punxsutawney Phil to be the best replacement for his European forebears as the wisest weather-predicting animal in America.
On February 2nd, Phil comes out of his burrow on Gobbler’s Knob in front of thousands of faithful followers from all over the world to foretell the weather for the rest of the winter. This is officially known as Phil’s prognostication. If he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If not, an early spring is on its way.
The dapper gents wearing the tuxedos and top hats are members of the Inner Circle of the Groundhog Club, and they take care of and feed Punxsutawney Phil and also perpetuate and protect his legend. Phil makes his prediction in Groundhogese to the current president of the Inner Circle, who then shares it with the world.
Groundhog Day has been celebrated in Punxsutawney with a trip up to Gobbler’s Knob since 1887. Furthermore, the Punxsutawney Phil you see now is the same one who made his prediction on the first Groundhog Day back then! Each September at the Groundhog Picnic, the Inner Circle gives him a sip of the magical Elixir of Life, which grants him an additional seven years of life.
Book your lodging early! Rooms in Punxsutawney fill up well in advance of Groundhog Day each year, but you can find great nearby options in Brookville, Brockway, Cook Forest, Clarion, East Brady, Foxburg, and elsewhere in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region.
Plan to stay for several days! Events start a week before the prognostication, and the whole town gets in on the fun.
Get your tickets! While the prognostication is free, you need a ticket to get into events like the members reception, banquet, ball, dueling piano performance, and more, so watch Groundhog.org for updates.
Head to the Knob early! THOUSANDS of people will be waiting for the shuttle buses and walking up the hill, and the pre-prognostication party is tons of fun, so give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the full event.
Layer up! It’s cold here in February, especially at the top of Gobbler’s Knob. Wear several warm layers of thermal underwear and fleece plus a windproof outerwear to stave off the cold, and pack plenty of air-activated body warmers, such as HotHands or Grabbers, to keep your hands, toes, and body warm in the chill.