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Why we’re using “Groundhog Day” incorrectly as a metaphor

“Groundhog Day:” Not just for February 2, but every day
The Groundhog (Marmota monax): Day after day, over and over, we ask ourselves the same question: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

Of all the greeting card holidays we’ve come up with to celebrate different aspects of our lives, arguably the most incomprehensible is Groundhog Day.

February 2nd: We’re almost exactly half a planetary orbit around the sun from that moment, the 33rd day of the year in the Gregorian calendar, but I’m bringing it up for discussion because increasingly I’m hearing that phrase, almost on a daily basis.

Groundhog Day is a bizarre celebration — almost pagan in its practice. Indeed, it derives from a Pennsylvania Dutch superstition that if a groundhog emerges from its burrow, sees its shadow due to clear weather, it will retreat to its den and winter will persist for six more weeks; if it does not see its shadow because of cloudiness, spring will arrive early.

Speaking of Dutch, I can really imagine this scene coming to life in a painting by Breugel (the Elder or the Younger), or Hieronymus Bosch. Surely, only the medieval European peasantry could fling themselves with such delightful abandon into such a curious nonsensical belief, that today not even the most bearshirt crazy conspiracy theorist, surely, could possibly for even a split second put an iota of credence into — that a groundhog, of all animals, can present a long-term weather forecast for us. I mean, a raven, possibly. Or maybe a raccoon. But a groundhog?

Don’t get me wrong. I can be a fan of the irrational. My medieval peasant roots go way back. If you look closely at the painting “The Battle Between Carnival And Lent,” you can see me capering in the background, in my tight patched hosen and my wooden sabots.

Why am I talking about Feb. 2 now, about half a year distant and half a year hence? It’s because Groundhog Day has become a metaphor for throughout the year, especially during times of pandemic restrictions and lock-down. In lock-down, so many of our days were an exact repeat of the day before, Groundhog Day became the phrase on everybody’s tongue.

This of course, stems from the famous 1993 film with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, whereby the cynical jerk of a weatherman covering the annual Groundhog Day celebration in Pennsylvania gets trapped in a time loop, and is forced to live February 2 over and over until he finally learns love, compassion and empathy.

And so, more so than the other greeting card holidays, Groundhog Day has become a metaphor beyond its specific day, and a part of of our language that we all understand, even if we have not seen that movie.

Much like the Christian medieval peasants put so much of their obsolete pagan background into something like, say, May Day, the fact that we moderns are creating new metaphors and language traditions out of our Hollywood-influenced culture seems organic, right and proper.

What I have come to have a problem with, however, is that we are using the metaphor incompletely. During this long pandemic, with its lockdowns, we refer to ourselves as living in Groundhog Day because our daily lives seem so compressed and boring under the restrictions imposed on them. One day seems exactly like the day before.

Before the pandemic, we also used “Groundhog Day” as a phrase incorrectly, to refer to a character trait or an issue that kept recurring to impede one’s life — like a sports team, say. “It’s Groundhog Day for the Maple Leafs, getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs.”

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In “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray’s character stays stuck in the Groundhog Day loop because he cannot change his selfish, arrogant ways. This is the essence of the metaphor. It’s not about living the same day over and over until it changes. It’s about changing your life by changing yourself.

The phrase “We’re all in this together,” and “be calm, be kind,” are essential to all of us coming intact through this long pandemic. Individualism will hold us back, altruism is the way forward. If not — well, perhaps our long Groundhog Day of the soul will continue ad infinitum, or ad nauseam, as the case may be.

In any case, I wish you all a happy and productive Groundhog Day for as long as it lasts. And by the way, this week marks the Summer Solstice, and also the traditional Feast Day of St. John the Baptist (June 24), celebrated widely as Midsummer.

* * * February 2, or thereabouts, is also St. Brigid’s Day (Imbolc), or “The Quickening,” the halfway point between the solstice and the equinox, and for the ancient Celts, the beginning of spring.

* * *

Congratulations to the Class of 2021

The Cranbrook Townsman congratulates all students of the Mount Baker Secondary School Class of 2021, for your accomplishment over this most unusual past two years.

Your 12 or more years in school may have seemed like Groundhog Day to you, but look at how you’ve changed, and what you’ve achieved.

May adventure, joy and fulfillment be yours in the months and years ahead — remember, we are counting on you to save us all from ourselves. We know you will make the world a better place as you move forward in life.

Three cheers for the staff, teachers and administration of School District 5 for making it work over the difficult year. May you have the best of well deserved summer breaks.

Don’t forget to check our tribute to the MBSS graduates in a special supplement in this issue of the Townsman.

The Mount Baker Secondary School Class of 2021 will be holding a closed-door ceremony where students will cross a stage at the Key City Theatre to receive their high school diploma in an COVID-safe event on Wednesday, June 23.

It will be video recorded, edited and posted online the next day, where graduates will be able to take in the proceedings — which will include some other video vignettes — with their loved ones in their own personal COVID-safe environments.

Barry Coulter

About the Author: Barry Coulter

Barry Coulter had been Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman since 1998, and has been part of all those dynamic changes the newspaper industry has gone through over the past 20 years.
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