On Friday, Feb. 2 – Groundhog’s Day – Union Kanaal Grundsau Lodsch #17 gathered at the Myerstown Recreation Park on South College Street to receive and share the 43rd annual forecast by Lebanon County’s own Uni.
- Union Canal Groundhog Lodge #17 celebrates 40 years of preserving Pennsylvania Dutch culture
- ‘Uni’ isn’t short for unique, but it could be
The event was held at 8 a.m. and was free to the public.
During the event, Uni was paraded from his local hibernation spot in town to a boat on the Tulpehocken Creek – which was once a part of the old Union Canal – to seek his shadow and to predict the coming of spring.
Uni, according to lodge members, has never been wrong since his forecasts began in 1981.
This year, Uni did not see his shadow, which means an early spring, according to tradition.
The 2024 ceremony began on a somber note as the Union Kanaal Grundsau Lodsch #17 of Eastern Lebanon County recognized the recent passing of their own, member Earl Hehnly.
The Eastern Lebanon County chapter of the lodge is one of 17 located in eastern Pennsylvania, all of which are dedicated to preserving the region’s Pennsylvania Dutch roots.
A big part of that preservation is carrying forward the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, which directly descended from the language of German, French, and Swiss immigrants to the region in the 1700s and 1800s. So it was fitting that Uni’s forecast was first delivered and shared in Pennsylvania Dutch by lodge member Donald Hickernell, the designated Uni whisperer for this year’s event.
But, since “just a few here, not that many, don’t understand Dutch,” Hickernell also translated the marmot’s meteorological outlook into English. Although Uni forecasted an early spring, Hickernell noted that we can still expect some rain and some snow.
“And he said, you know there’s an old Dutch saying, ‘When it rains it makes wet, and when it snows it makes white,'” said Hickernell.
Some historical perspective
Groundhog Day – although observed throughout North America and popularized by the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell – has deep roots in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition.
According to an article collected by the Library of Congress for its American Folklife Center project, Groundhog Day “is celebrated in many places in the United States and Canada, with an emphasis on tongue-in-cheek humor and ceremonious proclamations. It is best known among people whose ancestors spoke German, especially the Pennsylvania Dutch.”
The holiday sprouted from an ancient European pagan holiday known as Imbolc, which was later Christianized as the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, the Irish feast of St. Brigid, and Candlemas. “But the tradition of predicting the weather persisted through many of the holiday’s variations,” the article notes.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know that much else about how ancient Celts celebrated Imbolc, but its importance as the first day of spring persisted to living memory,” it states. “Weather prognostication, then, became associated with the beginning of February during ancient times, and the tradition persists until today. But this still leaves us in the dark as to the groundhog and his role in the process!”
In Europe, notably, the forecasting tradition belonged to the humble badger, rather than the groundhog, “but the traditions are otherwise almost identical.” The European badger, like the American groundhog, is “a small, hibernating, forest-dwelling mammal known for being very shy, and it was only natural for German-speaking immigrants to America to substitute the groundhog for the badger.”
Groundhog Day customs have led to “a fascinating development in Pennsylvania Dutch country: the ‘Groundhog Lodges,’ a loose organization of social clubs focused on the maintenance of Pennsylvania Dutch language and culture. The lodges, which hold meetings called ‘versammlinge,’ at which participants speak only Pennsylvania Dutch, have existed since the 1930s.”
There are plenty of groundhogs marking the occasion throughout Pennsylvania. Punxsutawney Phil, in western PA, has garnered the most fame — likely in large part due to the classic Bill Murray film. Lebanon County also boasts a second furry meteorologist: Mount Gretna’s Grady, who has been making forecasts since 2018. (Grady, for the record, did see his shadow when making this year’s forecast.)
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