Groundhog Day: The greatest story ever told?

For the 129th consecutive year the people of a US town have held aloft a small, rat-like creature to forecast the weather

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The Independent Culture

Fred knew a thing or two about redemption, about the willingness to change, about turning one's life around. Sitting drinking beer from a bottle in a dark, late-night bar in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, as a blizzard blew up outside, he explained, "A few years ago, my son was about 12 or 13 and it had got to the point where he needed me around more than I was. I was working for a gas company, making $55,000 [£30,000], which is good money for these parts. But I just walked away from it. Now I sell trailers and low-loaders, anything, and I doubt I make a third of what I used to. But I'm always there for my boy. Now my son's a star athlete at high school and a grade-A student."

Fred put down his bottle, tugged on the peak of his baseball cap and glanced at the snow coming down outside. "I've done some pretty stupid things in my time, but I can walk down the streets of Punxsutawney with my head held high."

On February 2, the people of Punxsutawney will be holding their heads as high as any. For the 129th consecutive year the people of this small town will hold aloft a small, rat-like creature and, by its subsequent behaviour, seek to forecast the weather. Records suggest that the forecasters usually get the prediction correct, but either way the town's Groundhog Day has become world famous, and tens of thousands of people will flock to this part of Pennsylvania to participate in it.

The day has its roots in the tradition of Pennsylvania's settlers (EPA)

Much of that has to do with the success of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a brash TV weatherman who is dispatched to Punxsutawney to cover the annual festival. Yet the movie has achieved far more than simply luring crowds to a Pennsylvanian town - what is usually described as a romantic comedy has become a crucial teaching tool for various religions and spiritual groups, who see it as a fable of redemption and reincarnation that matches anything that Fred could tell me at the bar.

"At first I would get mail saying, 'Oh, you must be a Christian because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief'," the film's director Harold Ramis recently told The New York Times. "Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation centre for 30 years and my wife lived there for five years."

Firstly, a brief synopsis of the film: Murray's arrogant and curmudgeonly character, Phil Connors, having been sent to Punxsutawney for the fourth year in a row, finds himself inexplicably trapped in a seemingly endless cycle in which he is forced to repeat that 2 February day over and over again. Nothing he can do - not suicide, not prayer, not visits to the psychiatrist - can break the circle. At first he uses the repetitious cycle to his advantage, learning to play the piano and to speak French in an effort to seduce his producer, played by Andie MacDowell.

It is all in vain. Every day at 6am he wakes up in the same bed with the same crushed pillow in the same small hotel, the same tinny radio on the bedside table playing Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" and the same obnoxiously cheerful local-radio presenter reminding everyone - just in case they had forgotten - that it is Groundhog Day. It is only when, an endless number of days later, Murray learns humility, understanding and acceptance of his fate that he breaks the cycle.

Unknown to Fred, and probably to most of the people in snow-bound Punxsutawney, Groundhog Day is now associated in the minds of many spiritual seekers with redemption, rebirth and the process of moving to a higher plane. Professor Angela Zito, the co-director of the Centre for Religion and Media at New York University, told me that Groundhog Day illustrated the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth that individuals try to escape. In the older form of Buddhist belief, she said, no one can escape to nirvana unless they work hard and lead a very good life.

But in the teachings of the slightly more recently established Mahayana Buddhism, no one can escape samsara until everyone else does. "That's why you have what are called bodhisattvas who reach the brink of nirvana and come back for others," she said. "The Dalai Lama is considered one living bodhisattva, but Bill Murray could also be one. You can see [in the film] that he learns." Zito shows the film to her undergraduates in New York without any explanation beforehand. "Most of them know the film," she said. "I think they find it interesting."

Many historians say that the tradition has fused with that of Candlemas Day (Reuters)

But Ramis is quick to point out that it is not just Buddhists who are able to draw parallels with the film. Scholars of Judaism have also leapt on it, and Ramis claims that many Buddhists in the US started out as Jews. "There is a remarkable correspondence of philosophies and even style between the two," said Ramis, who was raised in the Jewish tradition but practises no religion. "I am wearing meditation beads on my wrist, but that's because I'm on a Buddhist diet. They're supposed to remind me not to eat, but they actually just get in the way when I'm cutting my steak."

Dr Niles Goldstein, the author of Lost Souls: Finding Hope in the Heart of Darkness, is rabbi of the New Shul congregation in Greenwich Village. He recently said that there was a resonance in Murray's character being rewarded by being returned to earth to perform more good deeds, or mitzvahs. This was in contrast to gaining a place in heaven (the Christian reward) or else achieving nirvana (the Buddhist reward). He is considering using the film as an allegory when he speaks to his congregation. "The movie tells us, as Judaism does, that the work doesn't end until the world has been perfected," he said.

As Ramis has been told by Jesuit priests among others, the film clearly also contains themes found within the Christian tradition. Michael Bronski, a film critic with the magazine Forward and a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where he teaches a course in film history, said: "The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever-hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays. And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect."

The Groundhog Day that is celebrated in Punxsutawney, as well at countless other, less famous festivals in towns across the US, has its roots in the tradition of the settlers who moved into Pennsylvania. Many historians say that the tradition has fused with that of Candlemas Day, always held 2 February, or what is known in the Gaelic tradition as là fhè ìll Brighde nan coinnlean, or "the feast day of Brìghde (or Bridget) of the candles". The date comes halfway between the winter solstice, which marks the shortest day of the year, and the vernal equinox on or around 21 March, the first day of spring.

Many of the first settlers to the hills and forests of Pennsylvania were German and used the native groundhog, a member of the marmot family, in a custom that their ancestors had performed using a hedgehog. If the sun appeared on 2 February, and the hedgehog was able to see its shadow, the animal would return to its nest where it had been hibernating and the participants would judge that another six weeks of winter were to come. If there was no sun, and therefore no shadow, spring was on its way early. In the words of one traditional Scottish couplet: "If Candlemas Day is bright and clear/ There'll be twa [two] winters in the year."

Not surprisingly, some non-mainstream beliefs have also focussed on this ceremony, and indeed the movie. Tizzy Hyatt of the Women's Theological Institute, a Wicca group based in Madison, Wisconsin, said that their name for Groundhog or St Bridget's Day was Imbolc. "It's the return of the light," she said. "On this day, the days start to get longer. Hopefully the spring will return."

Not everyone in Punxsutawney buys into the event but it attracts huge crowds (AP)

These days the groundhog of Punxsutawney - for more than 100 years known as Phil - is very much a modern beast. The groundhogs, or woodchucks, are raised by hand by a local undertaker, Bill Deeley, who is a member of the inner circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, the top-hatted men who perform the forecasting. Mr Deeley's 80-year-old father, Chuck, a veteran of the Second World War, told me that his son raised the animals in a room at the rear of the funeral parlour. "The customers don't know," he whispered.

The groundhogs spend most of their time in a heated, glass-sided burrow set inside the town's neat library, where thousands of visitors, most of whom have seen the film, come and peer at the animals and sign the visitors book. But on every 1 February Deeley and others from the club will come and select one of the groundhogs and take it to a specially constructed, and likewise heated, burrow in the base of a tree stump on a piece of ground overlooking the town, known as Gobbler's Knob. At 7.30am, they rap on the burrow's trap door with a 70-year-old cane, take out Phil and in front of the roaring crowd lift him into the air. Phil will "speak" to the club's president and predict the weather.

Not everyone in Punxsutawney buys into the Groundhog Day cult. Rev Mary Lewis of the town's First Baptist Church felt the idea that the film illustrated resurrection was taking matters too far. "However, to me, in terms of Christian values I see that [Murray] is growing as a person. He starts out as a creep only out for himself, but gradually he begins to actually become a better human being."

The morning after the night in the bar, I drove up to Gobbler's Knob to inspect Phil's temporary home. Bill Cooper, the president of the Groundhog Club, and Butch Philliber, another member, were shovelling away the overnight snow and throwing down salt in anticipation of the crowds.

Cooper, an affable banker from Pittsburgh who moved to Punxsutawney some years ago, knew all about the religious groups who had jumped on the movie, and he appeared to approve of the spiritual element attached to the event. "With the forecasting, it depends who you listen to," he said. "Some people say we get it right a lot, others say we usually get it wrong. But if you're the sort of person who is going to come and argue about that, then Groundhog Day is not for you."

Suddenly he looked terribly stern. "People might say that when we listen to Phil it's all just for show, but let me tell you, it is 100 per cent serious."

This article was originally published on 2 February 2004