WSU alum continues Groundhog Day tradition

Those who can’t make it to Gobbler’s Knob to see Punxsutawney Phil on Feb. 2 can head on over to Sunset City, where Sunset Sam will make his prediction about the end of winter.

Weber State University alumnus Brent Andrews made his first appearance with Sunset Sam 18 years ago.

“Sunset Sam is the western version of Punxsutawney Phil,” Andrews said. “Sunset Sam is presented at sundown. If he sees the sun before it goes down, then there will be six more weeks of winter. He’s never been wrong yet.”

Andrews began this tradition 18 years ago in order to help his family get their minds off the death of his 3-year-old son. The first Sunset Sam was the family’s pet guinea pig. Eighteen years ago, only 12-14 people were present to see Sunset Sam’s prediction. However, that number has been slowly growing. The city has since taken over the tradition, and last year, more than 100 people came to see Sunset Sam’s prediction. Sunset City also offers hot chocolate, donuts and fire barrels to keep everyone warm.

WSU professor Kimball Hadfield said Groundhog Day has its origins in early Pagan and religious beliefs. Feb. 2 marks the ending of the darkest three months of the year, halfway between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. Winters were long and hard, and people wanted to know how soon spring would arrive. They would hold up small creatures to see if spring would come again. If the sun was up and the animal could see his shadow, then spring would not come for another six weeks. However, if it was cloudy and the animal did not see his shadow, then spring would come early.

Ancient folklore provides another explanation. It says bears wake from hibernation on this day. If the bear sees its shadow as it comes out of its cave, then it will be frightened and go back to sleep, thus prolonging winter for another six weeks.

According to Hadfield, the celebration of Groundhog Day as it is seen in modern times began with the Pennsylvania Dutch, who brought the tradition with them from Germany. They would hold up a hedgehog to determine when spring would come. Hedgehogs were later replaced with the more-plentiful groundhog.

The largest Groundhog Day celebration in the United States is in Punxsutawney, Pa. This event received nationwide attention when the film “Groundhog Day” was made in 1993. Punxsutawney City said it receives about 30,000 tourists each year to watch Punxsutawney Phil predict when spring will come.

Because of the movie, Groundhog Day has come to symbolize an entirely different meaning in popular culture.

“Groundhog Day has come to represent going through a phenomenon over and over until one spiritually transcends it,” said Suzane Daughton, author of “Critical Studies in Mass Communication.”

WSU student Bob Bauer agreed with Daughton.

“We should celebrate the movie on Groundhog Day, rather than the actual groundhog seeing or not seeing his shadow,” Daughton said.