THIS IS THE BIG DAY for a groundhog named Phil in Punxsutawney, Pa. Just after sunrise the president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club is scheduled to roust Phil out by banging ceremonialy on his burrow's orange door. Phil is supposed to emerge, blink sleepily at the crowd and the television crews and then -- and then -- either see his shadow and retreat into his burrow, foretelling six more weeks of winter, or stay outdoors heralding an early spring.

He usually retreats -- which figures, in this climate, because spring is usually some weeks away. Indeed, few self-respecting groundhogs would come out so soon at all if those himans werren't making such a fuss over their heads.

Still, it's a pleasant bit of foplklore -- and a remark-ably durable one, especially if you forget the ground-hog for a moment and think of today more generally as a time to renew oneself and start turning toward spring. In pagan Rome this was the time for Februation , or purification of the people. Since the early days of Christianity, it has been Candlemas Day, the feast of the Virgin Mary, celebrated by the blessing of candles that signify spiritual light. The sense of changing seather has been blended into this for centuries, especially in Germany and Britain, where a clear, dry Feb. 2 might well be wintry and a cloudy, rainy day could indeed point toward early spring.

And what better gauge of the weather than a creature just emerging from its winter sleep? In German lore a badger serves the purpose. So, finding no European badgers here, the German settlers pinned the legend to the next best (or worst) thing -- the ground-hog, or woodchuck (Marmota monax, formally), an otherwise undistinguished varmint that eats crops, digs dangerous holes in otherwise green pastures, and isn't even good to eat.

Why Punxsutawney? Something to do with tradition, we gather, and with local enterprise. The town's civic leaders have promoted their Groundhog Day lavishly since 1887. Phil's emergence is just the start of it; the celebration also includes a community breakfast, the crowning of a high school king and queen, and a huge banquet at DeFelice's Family-Style Restaurant tonight at which the local man and woman of the year will be proclaimed.

So you can think of Phil as a forecast -- or a photo opportunity.That's the charm of Groundhog Day: Shadow or no shadow, believers and non-believers alike are free to indulge a yearning -- in this of all years -- for an early spring.