2.03.2009

Have you ever tried explaining Groundhog Day to someone?

There's a section in Me Talk Pretty One Day where David Sedaris explains to his fellow classmates in a Paris language school who the Easter Bunny is. Apparently, like Christmas, Easter is celebrated in several different ways across the globe; only in North American homes will you find chocolate eggs hidden in your couch and on your stairs. It's just such an ignorant thought, that if we celebrate something here in Canada or the US, that everybody must celebrate it too. Everyone drinks green beer in March in Uganda, right? So last night I was presented with a question so baffling that I was almost unable to answer it. I was at my weekly volunteer stint where I tutor High School students till 6pm and I was working with one of my regulars, a 16-year-old girl from China. In the middle of me trying to explain Grade 11 Algebra (which I completely failed when I was in Grade 11) she asked me this:

"What is the holiday today where there is an animal?"

Excuse me? What holiday are you talking about? What animal? My first instinct was to say Chinese New Year. Yeah, as if she was unsure of one of the biggest Holidays in her own culture. I then realized she meant Groundhog Day, aka the most important weather-determining technology we in the Western World have. More important than Doppler 7 Radar.

She then asked what is a groundhog? Why do we celebrate this holiday? Is the groundhog magic? Why did I have to go to school today? Wow, where do I even start? The conversation went a little like this:

Myself: Okay, well, a groundhog is like a beaver without the tail that lives in holes in the ground. I don't think farmers like them. They maybe eat carrots or telephone cables, I dunno.

New Groundhog Enthusiast: Is a groundhog a pig?

Myself: No no, it's actually not a hog at all. It's a very fat rodent. It sort of looks like a Prairie Dog.

New Groundhog Enthusiast: What's a prairie dog?

Myself: Oh yeah, I guess they don't have those in China either. Okay, let's go Google Image Search this.

(We take a brief moment to Google search what a groundhog is and what a prairie dog is. Both shock her; neither look like a pig or a dog. Black is white, up is down. Hamburgers eat people.)

Myself: Okay, so now you know what we're dealing with. So every February, on Groundhog Day, the Mayor and all these Old Timey Townspeople gather around the den hole of Punxsutawney Phil. Phil is a groundhog, remember. When he exits his home, one of two things can happen: he will either see his shadow and run back inside, which means 6 more weeks of winter. Or he will come out and stay out, which means an early spring.

New Groundhog Enthusiast: Where does he live?

Myself: America

New Groundhog Enthusiast: South America?

Myself: Hahaha, no. America America...like, the US. That would be hilarious; Estuardo the Groundhog from Rio de Janeiro. Nevermind. He lives in Pennsylvania. Anyways, Groundhog Day has been around for more than 100 years, so we do this every single year, even if that groundhog is totally incorrect.

New Groundhog Enthusiast: The groundhog is 100 years old?!?

Myself: Oh no, no no. Groundhogs only live to be about 10 years old and then they die, so they replace him. It's kinda like being the President. Everybody calls him Mr.President, but it's not the same guy year after year. Oh! In Canada we have Wiarton Willie, who sucks and is not as good, and when he died, they had a littel funeral for him and put pennies on his eyes so that he wouldn't scare the children.

(This is where I had completely lost her. I think the image of a tiny, rodent-shaped casket just threw the whole story over the edge.)

New Groundhog Enthusiast: So Phil tells us if we have a long winter or an early spring. And he lives in a special hole in the ground. And every year you pull him out and he predicts the weather and when he dies he is given a fancy funeral?

(Obviously...I don't understand what is so difficult to grasp here. Come now, they must have a Chinese equivalent)

Myself: Oh! I almost forgot! Phil speaks to the head of the Inner Circle (those Old Timey guys) and then he relays the message to the townspeople.

New Groundhog Enthusiast: The groundhog speaks English?

Myself: Oh no, he speaks Groundhogese. A groundhog that can talk in English? Likey!

New Groundhog Enthusiast: So we will have 6 more weeks of winter then?

Myself: Probably not. He only has about 30% accuracy, so most of the time he is dead wrong. Like, he has a 50/50 chance of getting it right, so you'd think he'd be right half the time. But yeah, the groundhog is entirely unreliable. Do not base putting away your winter coat and boots on Phil.

After I said this, she shot me a look that screamed you are absolutely kidding me. I suppose it should have come as no surprise; we have based a Holiday around a talking rodent who predicts the change of seasons who is able to communicate with humans (humans fluent in Groundhogese, that is). I should have just advised her to watch Groundhog Day with Bill Murray (Billy Murray usually clears up any questions I have on supernatural creatures: Groundhogs, Ghosts, Jason Schwartzmans). But for now we'll just have base our belief in a ridiculous fokelore (we do it with Jesus, am I right? ....ouch)

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