(Editor's Note: The following piece is a first-hand account written on Sunday by the editor of The Punxsutawney Spirit, Zak Lantz. Zak was born and raised in Punxsutawney, and this account reflects more of a personal attachment to the holiday.)
PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. — This morning, I looked down and noticed something — I was wearing a press pass. Now, I know that it's part of my job to wear one, but it's not all that often — at least not in these parts — that I actually need one.
We're a pretty small town, and most places my reporters or I go, we're familiar faces who don't need a specific credential to show it. But today? Well, Today was different.
Today is Groundhog Day, and our little town has been transformed into a booming metropolis for the day. And while I'm usually pretty recognizable here in Punxsy, today I'm just another face in the crowd, so to speak.
From my experience, most reporters see Groundhog Day as a once-in-a-lifetime sort of assignment, but I see this day through a completely different lens than most out-of-towners — a much more familiar lens.
Many of those reporters pick up their press passes and parking passes from the Groundhog Club's Inner Circle members and start asking logistics questions about directions and parking. I pick up my parking pass and wonder if I couldn't make the trek up the hill to Gobbler's Knob blindfolded.
Other reporters wonder about the details of Phil's story in hopes of writing a neat lead. I grew up learning the customs behind Phil's big day in school. Of course, that was back before the local school district canceled classes in commemoration of Groundhog Day.
Still others will try to fight their way to the front of the crowd surrounding Phil at The Knob to get a good look at the animal celebrity. Meanwhile, I linger toward the back of the huddle taking it all in and putting one less body between our photographer and the Prognosticator of Prognosticators himself. (Besides, if I want to see Phil up close and personal and spend some time with him, all I have to do is swing by his summer home — the Punxsutawney Memorial Library — any other day of the year.)
So, is Groundhog Day familiar to me? Of course it is. But I'm still a reporter, and I'm here to share the facts:
• As is appropriate for such a holiday, weather was the topic of discussion in the crowd at Gobbler's Knob throughout the morning, as light rain showers came and went throughout the early morning hours in the area. Still, the pre-game show went on, with Phil's dancers, Thunder Conductor Dave Gigliotti and their friends keeping the blood flowing with on-stage activities.
• Special guests at The Knob this year included a district attorney from Ohio who accused Phil of a poor prognostication last year, citing cold temperatures and a lack of an early spring in his evidence. Mike Gmoser was on-hand Sunday morning to offer up his apology to Phil — a punishment deemed upon him by Jefferson County Judge John Foradora at the Groundhog Eve Banquet on Saturday night. The banquet's featured speaker — The Weather Channel's Jennifer Carfagno — was also in attendance, and she brought along other Weather Channel staff, including last year's featured guest, Jim Cantore.
• At 7:15 a.m., the members of Phil's Inner Circle began the official ceremony with their annual "Trek to Gobbler's Knob," working their way through the crowd to take the stage by Phil and his stump. When they reached the stage, they greeted the crowd and introduced themselves in the moments before Phil's first appearance.
• Jeff Lundy, Fair Weatherman and the Inner Circle's vice president, placed the two scrolls on Phil's stump at 7:20 a.m., paving the path for Phil's co-handlers, Ron Ploucha and John Griffiths, and Groundhog Club Inner Circle President Bill Deeley to bring Phil out for all to see.
• At 7:22 a.m., the crowd started cheering Phil's name to draw him from his slumber, and after Deeley did the ceremonious taps on Phil's door, he was pulled from his abode — though he did put up a bit of a fight, seeming to want one more "snooze" before the big moment.
• At 7:23 a.m., Phil was officially introduced to crowd, as Deeley met him at the stump for the prediction — whispered in Deeley's ear in Groundhogese.
• At 7:25 a.m., the precise moment the annual announcement is to be read, Lundy orated the scroll of Phil's choice: "A Super Bowl winner I will not predict; but my weather forecast, you cannot contradict. Why that's not a football, but my shadow I see. It's six more weeks of winter, it must be!"
So, those are the facts. But there's so much more to the Groundhog Day puzzle than just the facts. Facts alone certainly don't explain why tens of thousands of people gather in the midst of winter — unseasonably warm or not — to hear Phil's speech.
So many gather here to get up close and personal with this tradition I've been surrounded with my entire life. Familiar? Yes, but that doesn't mean I'm any less amazed by it.
This morning, an estimated 30,000-plus (though higher numbers were thrown out as possibilities) came together in a town of less than 6,000 to have a little bit of fun. I was in their midst as a reporter, yes, trying to take it all in and deliver the facts.
But more than that, I was among them taking it all into recharge my recollection of just how special this event is.
Those reporters crowded around Phil? Our beloved hog sees their front pages once a year. Here in Punxsy, he's been in the news all month as he and his closest friends made their preparations for The Weather Capital of the World's biggest day.
I'm a reporter, so I'm giving you the facts here on Groundhog Day 2014. But if I stop at the facts, I really, really thing that I'm selling this story short.
This hog? He's something special. This day? It's something special. And I'm not the only one who thinks so.
In closing her remarks at the banquet Saturday night, Carfagno told those in attendance that Groundhog Day was "contagious."
It's contagious. It's fun. It has a once-in-a-lifetime sort of feel each and every year. And that's exactly why stopping at the facts doesn't quite tell the whole story of Groundhog Day 2014.