What Punxsutawney Phil says about us

Posted: February 03, 2014

On Groundhog Day, one is tempted to wonder how a supersized rodent came to be a symbol of hope.

Perhaps those tourists flocking to an obscure patch of Pennsylvania called Gobbler's Knob only think they've come to see a seer named Punxsutawney Phil.

They may instead be acting upon a universal human yearning for community, for a respite from the isolation imposed by, say, an Arctic vortex.

These Punxsutawney pilgrims may simply be expressing our communal wish for better weather.

"Groundhog Day is not just a silly holiday to promote the lottery in Pennsylvania," Sean Duffy, an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers-Camden, says - referring not to Phil but rather the irritating digital fur ball in those TV commercials.

"Groundhog Day is something deeper," Duffy adds. "It's about things people care about."

I meet the amiable and animated professor in his on-campus lair of books, books, books, and more books. The scholarly decor is brightened by three stuffed animals - two neon-hued snakes and a golden monkey who wiggles at the end of a wooden pole.

Duffy concocted that toy as a tool to get the attention of infants during research experiments. But these days, the professor, 37, spends more time studying the cultural psychology of holidays.

He explains that Groundhog Day evolved from Candlemas, a centuries-old German Christian tradition that also provided pioneering rural Pennsylvanians "an excuse to get out of their homes and get together to eat pretzels and make sausage."

When not researching communal celebrations, Duffy studies how seasons can affect our emotions, as well as the role of humor in human affairs.

Thus a holiday centered on a cousin to the squirrel and its purported skill at interpreting shadows to forecast or even affect the timing of spring is a rich subject for research. A shadow sighting, legend has it, causes a groundhog who has emerged from hibernation to retreat into his burrow for six more cozy weeks of winter; no shadow, no retreat, spring is (almost) here.

"The comedy of it makes Groundhog Day a fun thing for the news, and a fun thing for people to talk about," Duffy, who earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago, says.

"The holiday is interesting in part because of its ridiculousness."

The media have paid more attention, and the Punxsutawney event has become bigger, since the 1993 Bill Murray film Groundhog Day.

Duffy admires the movie and sees its uplifting message - about transcending even those mistakes we repeatedly make - as a metaphor for psychological therapy.

Then again, many people would probably view Groundhog Day (the event) as a metaphor, period.

Except perhaps those who believe a creature officially called a Marmota monax can see the future.

Did I mention that this creature, also known as a woodchuck, marmot, land beaver, or (my favorite) whistle-pig, whispers its alleged forecast in a secret language to a top-hatted member of something called the Inner Circle?

"I just did a quick analysis of the last 114 years of data," says Duffy, who's evidently quite capable of such endeavors.

"Phil has seen his shadow 98 times (86 percent of years) and no shadow 16 times (14 percent of years)."

Duffy's comparisons of Phil's forecast and actual snow accumulation suggest that people "should hope Phil sees his shadow, because it will mean less snowfall."

Whatever Phil has to say, Duffy notes, we're more likely to believe in his powers when he grants our wishes.

"What humans want is to not go through what we're going through this winter, or what they just went through in Atlanta," Duffy says. "I'm an avid cyclist, so I always keep an ear on Phil. Because I'm hoping for an early spring.

"I hope Phil does us right."


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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