Pennsylvania congregations offer groundhog hospitality.
ELCA NEWS SERVICE
January 28, 2009
CHICAGO (ELCA) — For years on Feb. 2, Bud Dunkel put on a tuxedo
and top hat, headed to the outskirts of his Pennsylvania hamlet, then
hoisted its most famous resident into the air for spectators waiting to
hear a weather prediction.
Dunkel lives in Punxsutawney, home of Phil, the woodchuck
weatherman immortalized in the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day.” According to town legend, if Phil sees his shadow Feb. 2, expect six more weeks of
winter; if not, plan on an early spring.
“Phil is fun, but our faith is in Christ,” said Dunkel, 78, a
retired roofer and past president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.
He’s also a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Two area ELCA congregations — First English and Mount Zion –
join to serve soup, sandwiches and sweets as the crowd returns from
Gobbler’s Knob, the hill where Phil usually emerges about 7:30 a.m.
Gates open at 3 a.m.
Up to 30,000 people descend on the town of 6,300 residents.
“They’re usually cold, tired and hungry by the time Phil finally
comes out,” said Pauline Means, 79, a member of First English Lutheran Church. “We’re glad to feed them something warm.”
Meal organizer Shirley Reitz said the celebration is an
opportunity for Lutherans to demonstrate Christ-like hospitality. “We
make a point to welcome everyone,” she said.
The two congregations together draw fewer than a hundred
worshippers on Sundays. Although small and struggling, they give
charities the money made from food sales on Groundhog Day.
“Everybody works together to help the town,” said Nancy Pifer, 70,
a member of Mount Zion.
Five years ago a fire destroyed the First English church building.
The blaze started in the steeple as members ate pancakes in the
basement. Everyone escaped, thanks to a passerby. They eventually
erected a new church building.
Reitz, 78, and Means, 79, both lifelong residents, only once
trekked to Gobbler’s Knob on Feb. 2. “It’s too cold!” Means said.
“Sometimes it can be 3 or 4 degrees below zero.”
Dunkel said the annual gathering grew bigger and rowdier after the
movie hit the big screen. “We’d get pelted with beer bottles,” he said.
“They’d close in on us and try to grab our top hats. It was frightening.
We couldn’t stand it.”
The event now strives to be alcohol-free and family friendly.
Organizers expect a smaller crowd this year because Groundhog Day falls
on a Monday, and just hours after the Pittsburgh Steelers play in Super
Dunkel said that handling Phil is harder than it looks. “He ripped
and roughed up many of my tuxes,” Dunkel said and laughed. “But I only
went to the hospital a couple of times for bites and shots.”
For a time, Dunkel raised groundhogs in his home. “Only three at a
time,” he said. Phil now stays in an enclosed area at the town’s
Phil has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and at the White House
over the years. The Groundhog Club insists that he’s nonpartisan.
“Phil is not Catholic, Presbyterian or Lutheran,” said club
officer Michael Johnston. “He’s not Republican or Democrat… He is an
entity, not a personality. Phil doesn’t speak or give opinions.”
Groundhogs usually only live a few years. The club says that
Phil’s been predicting winter’s end with 100 percent accuracy for more
than 120 years.
“Those prognosticators who question the science of all this are
missing the point,” Johnston said. “Phil’s here to make people smile and
provide a little escapism during the bleak midwinter.”
“Lutherans join in the fun of Phil, but we don’t worship a
groundhog,” he said. “That would be counter to the deeply held beliefs
about God central to the church.”
For information on the Punxsutawney celebration, go to
http://www.groundhog.org on the Web.