EMILY: "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"
STAGE MANAGER: "No. Saints and poets maybe...they do some.”
Thornton Wilder, Our Town
The Delaware Indians called it “Land of Sandflies.” It lies almost 100 miles outside present-day Pittsburgh. Thanks to a small-town newspaper editor with not much else to print on a dreary February day in 1886, the entire United States on Monday will celebrate this obscure town of Punxsutawney.
“A thousand people freezing their butts off waiting to worship a rat,” Bill Murray says in the movie, Groundhog Day, which solidified the actor as a household name. “What a hype.”
It may well be hype, but thousands of tourists pour into the town every year to see firsthand if a shadow is cast by the star of the show—the groundhog called "Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.''
When Germans settled the area in the 1700s, they brought a tradition known as Candlemas Day. It came at the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, when people welcomed a break from the winter routine. Clergy blessed candles and distributed them to the people in the dark of winter. Superstition held that if the weather was fair that day, the second half of winter would be stormy and cold.
Pennsylvania's celebration of Groundhog Day began on February 2, 1886, with a proclamation in The Punxsutawney Spirit by the newspaper's editor: Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow.
Since then the beast and his progeny have cast a shadow 101 times—promising more winter weather--and failed only 17 times.
In the movie, Murray portrays a character trapped in a sci-fi time loop in which he repeats the same day over and over. He happens to be in Punxsutawney and it happens to be Groundhog Day.
Why is this movie a classic? Maybe it has a ring of truth we can relate to.
For many of us, doesn’t life seem to be one long Groundhog Day? We trudge through stultifying daily routines, entangled in repeating patterns of resolutions forgotten, diets begun, disagreements rehashed.
Yet, what about Emily, the young girl in Thornton Wilder’s play who’s taken from life too early? When she’s offered the chance to return to earth for one day, she is advised: “Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.”
Essayist Ken Sanes interprets Groundhog Day as an exceptional work of moral fiction whose Scrooge-like protagonist is exiled from normal life so he can discover the good in himself. The movie appears to express an essential truth, Sanes says. When we get beyond denial and resentment over the conditions of life and death and accept our situation, we can become authentic and compassionate.
Toward the end of the movie, Murray’s character gives a speech: “Standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter."
Given the wintertime beauty of my surroundings on Cape Cod, I have to agree. I can’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter here.
In my next blog, “Simon Says”