Once heading upward in the enforced conviviality of a chairlift I was so sure I knew the other rider—a jolly, talkative, round-faced fellow—that I asked if we knew each other. We didn’t. He wanted to know if he looked familiar. I said he did as a matter of fact, but something didn’t look right about the ski helmet. “Would it help if you pictured me in a top hat?” he asked. I said, “Where are you from?” “Punxsutawney,” he said. Ha! I did know the guy! I knew his friendly face from morning news reports of the annual Groundhog Day festival staged in his small Pennsylvania town. For many years he had personally presented Phil to the cameras and recorded the rodent’s predictions for the likelihood of early spring. Remember that if Phil sees his shadow and scoots away from the bright sunrise we’re guaranteed another six weeks of winter. This is important data for a skier (as a group we hope for a prolonged winter) and I needed to know if I should trust old Phil. The groundhog’s friend (alas my memory for faces doesn’t extend to names) evaded the question by talking about how the group he called “The Inner Circle” would plan next year’s festivity.
On Groundhog Day this winter I looked up Phil’s record. It turns out that he’s spectacularly inaccurate, predicting correctly only 39% of the time in the last 115 tries when the choices were either-or (an imminent spring or not). You’d expect 50/50, but a statistical bias against sunny weather skews Phil’s prognostication. For weather lore you’d do better by listening to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Accuracy isn’t the point here, though. It’s how that funny Inner Circle ceremony teaches us a good lesson about the difference between play and ritual. Groundhog Day, it turns out, echoes the ancient Celtic Imbolc festival that falls on February 2. Halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, this day in the old reckoning marked the beginning of spring and provided the occasion to celebrate returning light. For the Celts, Imbolc carried the aura of a quickening, as the earth, imagined as female, prepared to give birth to a new season. Tired of the winter that seemed as if it would never end, the Celts celebrated the occasion by appeasing the gods and pushing back the forces of darkness by lighting fires and torches in the sacred glen and the hallowed glade. But modern Groundhog Day partying only faintly echoes the ancient fire-festivals. We may guess that along with celebration, a sense of the sacred infused those old observances, which besides celebration embodied the fretful yearning for a plentiful harvest that gripped subsistence farmers living on the sharp edge of nature’s favor. Play, like ritual, brings us together to mark important moments and share allegiance. But play is different from ritual as it reaffirms the value of the delight of the players over social duty and obligation. And play, rather than propitiating ungovernable forces to keep them at bay, sets aside worry and portent in favor of glee and fun. Groundhog Day helps us note the contrast between ritual and play. In 2011, the editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit said that Groundhog Day celebrations seemed much “like a rock concert” except that “the people are better behaved, and there’s a groundhog involved.” On Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, members of the Inner Circle catapult t-shirts into the crowd during celebrations. Amateur troops stage spoofs of TV game shows. Bands pump out amplified music. As the climactic moment nears, the co-celebrants chant Phil, Phil, Phil, Phil! The Inner Circle, claiming a mysterious understanding of groundhog speech, brings Phil forth and translates his whispered forecast. The presiding officer, dressed in top hat and tails like his co-celebrants, intones, “He has surveyed his surroundings carefully and found that there was no shadow around. So! There shall be an early spring!” But the Inner Circle is no priesthood and my jovial mate from the ski-lift is no priest. We do reserve special places for play such as magic circles like campfires, playgrounds, rings, arenas, and stadiums. Town squares, too, like in Punxsutawney. But though we celebrate in these set-apart play spaces, we can only consecrate them if we forget the essence of play.