The groundhog fanatics next door

Finding an anchor in Sun Prairie’s toothiest annual event.

Finding an anchor in Sun Prairie’s toothiest annual event.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

The one-year anniversary of the pandemic is creeping up and causing elevated levels of pining for non-virtual activities. For some, that might mean missing a good old-fashioned Groundhog Day.

Most people’s attitudes toward Groundhog Day fall into one of a few distinct categories: “I don’t really follow antiquated weather conjecture based on rodent shadows,” “Please just leave the woodchucks alone,” or “It’s too cold to stand around waiting for an elected official to whisper secrets with a member of the family Sciuridae.” I’ve had my own run-ins with these creatures, but I’m not quite so ready to dismiss the occasion we marked this past Tuesday.

Many people enjoy Groundhog Day for its mixture of old-world superstition and cuddly creatures, with maybe some goodwill derived from the beloved Bill Murray time loop comedy mixed in.

In Sun Prairie, the self-proclaimed “Groundhog Capital of the World,” the holiday is a long-honored tradition. It’s a motivation to step outside during the bitter cold of early February and visit the site of a woodchuck bite that took down a mayor.

With the current situation being what it is, a traditional Groundhog Day didn’t happen this year in Sun Prairie. Instead, the city put together an online event with all the big-hearted, small-budget charm one would expect from a TV special produced by a medium-sized municipality.

The event, which streamed online and aired via some local cable channels, featured Jimmy the Groundhog—the mascot, not the animal—hitting the gym, getting coffee, and playing pickleball in the snow while Mayor Paul Esser waited impatiently.

“These celebrities always keep you waiting,” Esser says in the video. “It was the same with Lady Gaga.”

In exchange for waking up at 7 a.m. and sitting on the couch, we got a montage of Jimmy racing across town set to generic power metal, a prognostication for an early spring, and State Rep. Gary Hebl lightly jabbing former Mayor Jonathan Freund, who reportedly botched his Groundhogese translation after being bitten by the ornery marmot.

After the proclamation, there were clips of local children sharing their hopes for Groundhog Day—“I’m Keegan and I don’t know what I want this year” really spoke to this moment in time—followed by video from previous events. We got to see former Mayor Joe Chase lead a Groundhog Day themed sing-along set to the tune of “Jingle Bells” and archival footage of former Mayor Dave Hanneman warning former Mayor JoAnn Orfan not to kiss the groundhog because it has “herpes.” (Yeah, I don’t even want to know either, and we can’t find out because both Hanneman and Orfan have passed on.)

The production was rough but the genuine sweetness and goofiness of it all was so welcome. This pandemic has drained a lot of color out of everyday life. It can be disheartening to realize we’re coming up on year two with still too few glimmers of hope.

Regardless of your feelings on Groundhog Day, it might sound kind of nice to be huddled around a caged rodent in sub-zero temperatures, just to feel like part of something bigger again. Until that happens, it’s nice that people will still honor traditions in weird and wonderful ways so we can feel like it’s not just another day.

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