Monday was Ground Hog Day, which is one of my favorite holidays. I like Ground Hog Day for several reasons. It’s the first holiday of the year, unless you count New Year’s Day, which everybody sleeps through anyway. It involves fat, furry little animals. It doesn’t mean anything at all to anyone, which is a big plus, since I don’t have to observe it if I don’t want to. Nobody expects gifts, or a cake, or eggs, or anything. It’s like an un-holiday, so I never get in trouble for forgetting it. For someone with a blasé attitude toward regimentation and a tendency to forget important dates, Ground Hog Day is just about as good as it gets.
Ground Hog Day started back in the 1800’s, way up in the northeast, among German settlers in Pennsylvania. The winters up there are pretty rough, involving snow and ice and pilgrims and other cold objects, and people had to stay inside to keep from freezing to death. By the end of January most folks were so sick of staring at each other and eating bratwurst they would have used just about any excuse to get outside. The folks up there still suffer from cabin fever.
A good example of this is the annual New Year’s Dip at Lake George, New York. Gretchen Holzhauer, my librarian friend, recently sent me a newspaper article from the Post Star about this tradition. A bunch of people go to Lake George on 1 January every year and strip down to swimming attire, such as you would wear if you were at Miami Beach and looked like Brad Pitt or Pam Anderson. Then they stick their toes in the water, shiver, put their clothes back on, and go home.
Well, that’s what they would do if their brains hadn’t been frozen. What they really do is jump in the lake, which contains water that is about minus 400 degrees. All of them immediately die.
OK, they don’t die. They splash around for a while and get out of the water, looking like they jumped into blue paint instead. About 850 of them did The Dip this year. One of them, a fellow named Rick Koke, was asked how he can stand the cold. He said, “We don’t think about that. We think how much fun it is. We’re at the Beach.” It’s no wonder the Yankees were able to justify the War of Northern Aggression (1861 – 1865).
So the folks up north are no strangers to weird traditions. Ground Hog Day is just another example. Here’s how it started:
Candlemas was celebrated on 2 February, and one year, as a group of German farmers and their families were on their way to church, they noticed a ground hog sticking his head out of his burrow. They immediately beat the critter to death with sticks, and a tradition was born.
So Ground Hog Day is celebrated on 2 February every year, although we don’t beat the wadding out of them with sticks anymore. This is because of peta, the animal rights group that’s opposed to mistreatment of animals, unless they’re the ones doing the mistreating. Now we just wait to see if the ground hog sees its shadow when it comes out of its hole. If it does we have six more weeks of winter. Or not.
The fact is, ground hogs are no better at predicting the weather than meteorologists. They’re animals, for goodness sake. And let’s be honest – if you woke up after sleeping all winter, looked out of your front door, and saw that it was still below freezing outside (we’re talking Punxatauny, Pennsylvania, here), you would go back to bed for six more weeks, too. Ground hogs are animals, but they’re not stupid.
We don’t even have ground hogs in Texas, so the whole thing wouldn’t work here, anyway. We have rattlesnakes, but nobody wants to stand around outside a snake den and see if a rattlesnake thinks winter is over. We’re Texans, but we’re not stupid.
Besides, winter is a relative thing here. My best friend, who lived in San Angelo, used to know a girl who lived in West Virginia. He was talking to her once in early spring, and she told him it started warming up in West Virginia about the middle of March. She asked him when it started warming up in Texas. He said, “About dinner.”
What we do down here is watch the mesquite trees. When the mesquites bud out, it’s spring. Not before. Once in a while the mesquites will get fooled, and we’ll have one more freeze after they sprout, but that doesn’t happen often.
So I guess you could say the trees in Texas are smarter than the animals in Pennsylvania, which means the vegetarians are actually eating the more intelligent life forms. Tell that to the next animal rights type you run into.
Plus – and you can take this to the bank – you will never, ever, see a mesquite tree jumping into Lake George on New Year’s Day . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist who went swimming in freezing water once. Once. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org