Visiting Punxsutawney: Five Things I Learned On Groundhog Day

Posted by Blair Thornburgh

I’ve seen the movie Groundhog Day about five times (which, given the repetitive nature of the storylines, feels more like fifty), but until this weekend, I’d never seen the real Groundhog Day. Now, after experiencing all the impatient waiting, sub-freezing temperatures, and rodent-related reveling of one of the weirdest traditions our country has to offer, I’ve discovered that—surprise!—movies aren’t like real life.

Here’s the lowdown on the facts and fictions of G-Day.

1. THAT’S NOT GOBBLERS KNOB: The ground-hog zero for all things Phil isn’t the cute little park in the middle of town that the movie would have you believe. Take the very name Gobbler’s Knob: In Pennsylvania parlance, a “knob” can refer to anything from a mountain peak to a slight upward swell, and “Gobbler’s” comes from the (thankfully extinct) tradition of, well, gobbling up little woodland creatures as part of the day’s festivities.
For reasons known only to location scouts (the real Punxsutawney was prohibitively expensive?), the movie was actually filmed in Woodstock, Illinois, an area not exactly known for its hilly terrain. The real Gobbler’s Knob is a big ol’ stretch of rural field on the slope of a mountain about six times as big and six times as crowded: over 20,000 people have been known to show up for a glimpse of the groundhog.
Luckily, the area provides shuttle buses to and from town for a modest fee. Feel like making the trek on foot? Then put your little hand in mine, there ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t cliiiiimb…
2. 5:59? NOPE. Hate to break it to you, but by the time Phil Connors’ alarm clock makes its iconic flip to signal the dawn of a not-exactly-new day, it’s too late. People get to Gobbler’s Knob starting at 3 AM to get the best view of the stage—show up at 7:00 and, newscaster or no, you’ll be fortunate to find enough space to stand. Lodging is, naturally, hard to come by for the big weekend, but the Community Center helpfully offers a “crash pad” in their gymnasisum (BYO pillow) for a nominal fee. And once you’re there, Punxsutawney puts on quite a show for the freezing friends of Phil, with everything from dancers and t-shirt cannons to fiddle players and fireworks displays to keep you entertained and distracted from losing feeling in your feet.

3. BUT IT IS COLD OUT THERE EVERY DAY: What is this, Miami Beach? Not hardly… really. This year’s Groundhog Day morning kicked off at a toasty one degree Fahrenheit. People were bundled up in everything from balaclavas to blankets to groundhog-shaped hats. A woman next to me even had one of those little hand-warmer packets; a great idea had it not frozen solid. Naturally, I’m really glad I didn’t forget my booties.
4. THEY REALLY DO SAY PROGNOSTICATOR: Every bit of the ceremony you see on screen is pretty much accurate, from the top hats to the scrolls to the giant stick they whack on poor Phil’s front door to summon him to his post. Phil’s “Inner Circle” of dignitaries each gets a weather-related nickname, a specific duty for the big day, and a snazzy outfit.
The tradition echoes the custom of greeting new arrivals in New York City with an elegantly-dressed welcoming committee—after all, why should the world’s most famous groundhog get any less? Other duties of the Inner Circle include helping Phil imbibe his annual summertime dose of “Groundhog Elixir,” which magically lengthens his life for another seven years.
5. BACHELOR AUCTIONS, ICE SCULPTURES, & HOTEL PARTIES, NOT SO MUCH: You might not be able to buy yourself a date for two bits, but that doesn’t mean Punxsutawney doesn’t know how to party. Weary groundhog-goers are met with a multitude of merriments upon their return to Punxsy proper, with everything from souvenir sales to chainsaw carvers to art galleries and magic shows. Hungry tourists have their pick of provisions and parties: I counted eleven pancake breakfasts in a four-block radius, and nearly as many soirées.
The details might be different, but the movie got the important part exactly right: the people of Punxsutawney are friendly, generous, and properly proud of Phil. Groundhog Day is a wonderful display of true, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, American exuberance: a holiday that’s neither divisive nor discriminatory nor dogmatic—a frolic for frolicking’s sake.
And that is something worth doing over, and over, and over…
Blair Thornburgh

Blair Thornburgh

BLAIR THORNBURGH is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where she earned a B.A. in medieval studies and delivered a pretty good commencement speech. She lives in Philadelphia.