Phil the groundhog sees six more weeks of winter

PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - America’s most famous groundhog declared on Monday that the country will have six more weeks of winter.

Punxsutawney Phil, the latest in a line of rodents that have been “prognosticating” on the length of winter for 123 years, saw his shadow in the morning -- considered an omen of how long winter will last.

In keeping with tradition in this western Pennsylvania town, the groundhog ceremonially emerged from his “burrow” -- actually a box set into a tree stump -- and communicated his prediction to Bill Cooper, a top-hatted town elder who claims to be the only person in the world to speak “Groundhogese.”

The event, based on the festival of Candlemas, was made famous by the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray, which was based in Punxsutawney. Town leaders spend about $30,000 on Groundhog Day each year, hoping to maintain Phil’s status as the benchmark groundhog forecaster.

Jeff Grube, one of the organizers, said Groundhog Day helps distract him from concerns about his industrial coatings business in the recession and financial crisis.

“People are in a good mood,” he said. “It’s just good fun.”

Hugh and Marirose Dirstine came from Los Angeles to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary on their first trip to Groundhog Day, saying they were inspired by the movie.

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“It’s just part of America,” said Marirose, a teacher.

In New York City, another groundhog called Staten Island Chuck failed to see his shadow when he was lured from his cage by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, predicting that spring was near.

Two Canadian groundhogs, Wiarton Willie in Ontario and Shubenacadie Sam in Nova Scotia, saw their shadows on Monday to forecast a lingering winter.

Authorities in Punxsutawney say Phil is always correct but, according to the U.S. National Climate Prediction Center, he and his fellow groundhogs get it right about 39 percent of the time.

Organizers estimated 13,000 people -- some from Japan, Iceland and Egypt -- witnessed Phil do his thing in temperatures around freezing.

The crowd was entertained from 3 a.m. by dancing girls and top-hatted moderators who introduced special guests.

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The highlights included Jason Balsan, a New York City police officer, getting down on one knee and proposing on stage to his girlfriend Katie Slattery. She said yes.

Sheldon Carr, an engineer from Newburg, Wisconsin, was unable to explain the appeal of Groundhog Day, especially to non-Americans.

“There’s no reason,” he said. “No one understands the Yanks.”

As the crowd dispersed to the sounds of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Cooper told the people: “There are a lot of serious and important things in life, and Groundhog Day isn’t one of them.”

Reporting by Jon Hurdle; Editing by Daniel Trotta and John O’Callaghan