US winter almost over: Phil the groundhog

It's official, at least according to America's most celebrated groundhog: spring is just around the corner.

In an annual ritual with early roots in German folklore and rather more in US media-showbiz, a Pennsylvania groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil was interpreted Saturday as predicting an early end to winter.

According to his handlers at the ceremony in the town of Punxsutawney, Phil was brought out of his burrow and did not see his shadow, meaning, obviously, that the seasonal shift is in the offing.

"And so ye faithful,/ there is no shadow to see/ An early Spring for you and me," Phil announced later on his website: www.groundhog.org.

Last year, Phil was said to have seen his shadow and predicted a long winter -- a verdict that caused some controversy among groundhog and weather cognoscenti, given that it had been an exceptionally mild winter anyway.

The groundhog, or rather his long line of ancestors and lookalikes bearing the same name, is a national media star and was at the center of a Bill Murray comedy "Groundhog Day."

Groundhog Day falls each year on February 2, attracting large crowds. It started with a German tradition in which farmers monitored the animal's behavior closely to make decisions about when their fields should be planted.

Several wannabe groundhog prognosticators sometimes emerge in other parts of the country, notably in New York City. But Punxsutawney, which claims to have held its first Groundhog Day in the 1800s, is the undisputed headquarters.

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