Thoughts of Groundhog Day usually turn toward the famous celebration in Punxsutawney, Pa., and its famous prognosticator of spring’s arrival.
But around McHenry County, the annual February tradition draws thoughts of a different icon: comedian Bill Murray and his unforgettable movie “Groundhog Day,” parts of which were filmed right here in Woodstock.
It’s only fitting that community members have gathered together every winter for more than 20 years, like clockwork, to celebrate Woodstock Groundhog Days. The tradition continues this winter, with events running Jan. 29-Feb. 2 in and around the historic Woodstock Square. While many activities will look similar to those of years past, there will be a few changes, of course.
“When people who like the movie want to celebrate it, they’re not going to Punxsutawney,” says Rick Bellairs, chairman of Woodstock Groundhog Days. “They’re going to Woodstock because that’s the image in their minds. It’s fun walking among the crowd of people who gather in the Woodstock Square. I’ve met people from California, Texas and other parts of the country. We’ve also had people visit from Canada, Germany, Australia and other countries because they loved the movie, and they want to see where it was made.”
The festivities start Jan. 29 at 6 p.m. with the Wakening of the Groundhog. As Woodstock Willie emerges from his hibernation, he’ll meet with guests and pose for photos at the Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St.
“It’ll be outside in open air, and everyone will be socially distanced,” Bellairs says.
Afterwards, guests are invited to participate in Groundhog Day movie trivia, starting at 6:30 p.m. The event is usually held in the Opera House’s Stage Left Cafe, but this year it moves to the main auditorium, where seating can be sectioned off and spread out.
Ortmann’s Red Iron Tavern, 101 E. Church St., hosts a bags tournament Jan. 30, beginning at noon.
Proceeds from the event will support Christmas Clearing House, a charitable organization that helps needy families.
“It’ll happen in the outdoor beer garden, so people can keep their distance and have their own private space,” Bellairs says.
At 1 p.m. on Saturday, visitors can enjoy Groundhog Day Bingo, happening at the Woodstock Moose Lodge, 406 Clay St. The inside of the lodge is sure to ring a bell for “Groundhog Day” fans.
“They filmed the bachelor auction at the Moose Lodge, and that’s where Bill Murray is onstage playing the piano,” Bellairs says.
Throughout the weekend, the Woodstock Public Library, 414 W. Judd St., shows off displays of background scenes and photos captured when the movie was filmed here in 1992.
The main event is the Groundhog Day Prognostication, happening in the heart of the Woodstock Square on Feb. 2 at 7 a.m.
If the groundhog sees its shadow, legend holds there’ll be six more weeks of winter. If it doesn’t, legend suggests spring will come early.
“This is what Groundhog Day is all about,” Bellairs says. “Do we have six more weeks of winter, or is spring right around the corner? I really wanted to keep this event and move ahead with it.”
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has sidelined some traditions this year, including a chili cook-off and a free showing of “Groundhog Day” at the Woodstock Theater. The multi-screen cinema – which also was a filming location – is temporarily closed, due to COVID-19.
“We can’t pack 300 people in a place with open food and tastings,” Bellairs says. “We also usually have a pub crawl, but we can’t be responsible for packing people into the bars.”
Those who still want to enjoy the celebration while keeping their distance can do so. The prognostication on Feb. 2 will be streamed live at WoodstockGroundhog.org.
Bellairs is looking forward to keeping the tradition alive this year.
“This is just a fun and silly way to have fun in the winter,” he says with a laugh. “Christmas and the holidays are behind us and spring is ahead, so there’s not much going on. In the end, this has turned out to be a wonderfully fun event.” ❚
Woodstock Groundhog Days happens Jan. 29-Feb. 2 on the Woodstock Square. For information, see woodstockgroundhog.org.