Story by Jeremiah Knupp // Photos by Holly Marcus and Jeremiah Knupp
The groundhogs are everywhere. There are the stuffed toys sitting amongst dishes of sauerkraut and jars of pickled eggs laid out on tables. A portrait painting of a groundhog is propped reverently on the piano in the corner, a makeshift shrine with an opened can of birch beer sitting in offering beside it. There’s a crockpot of barbecued groundhog, according to the handwritten sign. Some who’ve entered the fellowship hall of Harrisonburg’s Park View Mennonite Church are even wearing knitted hats featuring rodenty ears and eyes. But don’t let the groundhogs fool you. This is not about groundhogs, though the furry animal is a fitting mascot for the evening’s festivities. Tonight is about a tradition that has buried in as deep and is as persistent as that impossible-to-eradicate little rodent that is the destroyer of gardens and the underminer of foundations. That tradition is a social bond based on geography, faith and taste buds.
Saturday’s gathering at the church on Park Road is the 11th Annual Groundhog Day Feast and Celebration, an event for “all people having Pennsylvania Roots.” Among the earliest settlers of Colonial America were Palatinate Germans, pushed out of their native lands for their Anabaptist beliefs, including that a person could not be baptized until adulthood, when they could consciously confess their faith. One group, known as Mennonites, arrived in Philadelphia in the late 17th century and spread west into what was then the Pennsylvania frontier. By the early 18th century, they moved up (as the river flows) the Shenandoah Valley, along with other Germanic and Scots-Irish immigrants, on the former Native American trail that became the Great Wagon Road.
They brought with them a tradition as strong as their religion – food. Like all culinary traditions, this one has two origins: preservation in the days before electricity, and an emphasis on “sustainable” as a survival mechanism rather than social fad, literally meaning, “snout to tail.” The former is evident here in the aroma of vinegar hanging over the tables, the sauerkraut-based dishes, the pickling, the smoking and the salting that once allowed the summer harvest and fall butchering to stretch through the year. The latter shows up in dishes like “scrapple,” made by boiling the bones and meat scraps left over after butchering hogs with corn meal into a loaf that can be sliced thin and fried or baked and topped with condiments ranging from maple syrup to cottage cheese and apple butter.
A second Mennonite migration to Harrisonburg followed the founding of Eastern Mennonite College, which later grew into a university and seminary. It brought in Swiss-German Mennonites, whose ancestors had immigrated to places like Ohio and Indiana in the 19th century, and mid-western and Canadian Mennonites of Russian origin. While many of the celebration’s attendees are tied to the university, they are also bound together by the pickled, fermented, potato and pork-based foods being eaten today – just one part of a local subculture as distinct and unique as any the Friendly City has to offer.
Why Groundhog Day? The idea that the way the sun strikes a waking rodent on February 2nd has anything to do with weather forecasting is based on a Pennsylvania Dutch (a corruption of the word “Deutsch” or “German”) superstition brought from the Old Country that the behavior of badgers could predict the weather. February 2nd also conveniently falls halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox, far enough from both Christmas and planting season to be a safe time to celebrate.
The tradition of celebrating this Pennsylvania Mennonite heritage on Groundhog Day started over a decade ago in Harrisonburg resident Mary Ann Heatwole’s home. The first year, it was packed with about 35 people, before soon growing into Park View Mennonite’s larger space and extending an open invitation to the community. This year, nearly 150 people gathered in the fellowship hall, wearing stick-on nametags as if they were attending a family reunion. Heatwole remains in charge of the food, scurrying about in the kitchen with her daughter and niece.
In the same way that this event isn’t really about groundhogs, there’s more to it than the food, too. The evening’s true purpose begins when the plates are scraped clean, the last bites of pie consumed and the final drops of birch beer drained from their cans. It starts with a comedy routine by Jim and Anna Bishop, dressed up in traditional “Old Order” Mennonite garb. The best humor has its origins in often painful truths, and events like this are a safe place to share and even laugh at the stereotypes that they themselves have sometimes become.
“How many Mennonites does it take to change a light bulb? Seven. One to change the bulb and six to complain about how they liked the old bulb better.”
Next, a male quartet begins to sing, their acapella voices harmonizing in traditional Mennonite form. Soon the crowd is invited to join in. What starts off as a series of groundhog-themed songs grafted into familiar tunes (“I see my shadow, now I must go” to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine”), becomes more somber. The evening ends with the crowd singing a traditional hymn titled “Gott ist die Liebe.” The first two verses are sang in German and then repeated in English, reinforcing the message of the title that “For God So Loved Us.”
At their roots, events like the Groundhog Day Feast are about harmonizing. They take a community that is continually becoming more socially and intellectually diverse and synchronize their common heritage, be it spiritual, ethnic, geographic or culinary.
Like all traditions, the Groundhog Day Feast faces the constant threat of extinction. The fellowship hall is a sea of silvered, graying and white heads. Milliard Showalter’s recitation of Mark Twain’s essay “The Danger of Lying in Bed” seems more warning than humor. This year’s Groundhog Day event was bumped up a day; even flavors embedded deep into one’s DNA can’t compete with the Buffalo wings and nachos of Super Bowl Sunday. As the crowd prepares to disperse, the evening’s Master of Ceremonies Lee Yoder makes the suggestion that it’s time to pass the mantle.
“My grandchildren tell me my jokes are worn out and it’s time for a change,” Yoder quips.
The Brethren and Mennonite Heritage Center, based in Harrisonburg, has offered to take the event over next year.
“I can’t guarantee what it will look like, but this event will continue in some form,” Yoder promises the crowd.
The evening’s program notes that next year’s Groundhog Day Celebration will be held on “Tuesday February 2, 2021 D.V.” The final two letters standing for Deo Volente, the Latin phrase that translates as “God willing.” Sometimes divine providence comes in the form of a bond preserved by the salt, smoke and vinegar of shared experience, beliefs held with the same certainty as the coming of spring and traditions maintained with the tenacity of a rodent.
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