A Castle Shannon couple's countdown to Groundhog Day began nearly a month ago.
On Jan. 8, Anthony Skariot glued the first little brown puff ball to a piece of paper with an outline of a groundhog -- "kind of like Santa's beard," he said -- and for the next 25 days, he and his wife, Deana Carpenter, added one puff ball to the paper each day, creating a fluffy groundhog face by the time Punxsutawney Phil is ready to emerge from his burrow.
Groundhog Day, in this household, is not just today. It's all year round.
In the last few weeks, however, as the most famous resident of Punxsutawney prepared to give his annual prognostication, the couple's public display of Phil devotion has been at its peak.
Large plywood letters, covered in tinsel and outlined by Christmas lights, spell P-H-I-L in the front yard of their home. A wood carving of Phil sits on their porch. Inside, there is more para-phil-nalia, including a Christmas tree decorated with tiny groundhog hand puppets and even a framed print of a painting by Phil himself, done in peanut butter and jelly.
"It's like, at a point where I'm running out of souvenirs to buy up there," Ms. Carpenter said.
Mr. Skariot and Ms. Carpenter, both 31, are avid holiday decorators, especially for Christmas and Halloween, but the February holiday reigns supreme.
"Groundhog Day is the big one," Mr. Skariot said.
Their fascination with Phil goes back to a chance visit by Mr. Skariot to Punxsutawney a decade ago. It was the night before Groundhog Day in 2003, and Mr. Skariot was driving with a friend near the small Pennsylvania town, when they decided to spend the night so they could witness the next morning's festivities.
It was another four years before Mr. Skariot, who works for a mortgage servicing company, made it back to Punxsutawney, usually a two-hour drive northeast of Pittsburgh. He told Ms. Carpenter, a freelance reporter, it would be a big party.
Six years later, they're still going.
They drive up the day before so they can take their place at Gobbler's Knob at 3 a.m. There, they stand in the invariably freezing cold morning as they wait to see whether the groundhog sees his shadow. Phil, the legend has it, has been predicting whether there will be six more weeks of winter for more than 100 years, with his forecasts revealed only to the members of a secret society of men known as the Inner Circle.
The couple began celebrating Groundhog Day on a year-round basis a few years ago, when they formed the Outer Circle. It's the Pittsburgh chapter of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, one of about 50 chapters of people dedicated to supporting the groundhog legend.
"It's just a fan club for Phil, to kind of promote Groundhog Day," Ms. Carpenter said.
They started the club in 2010, recruiting about 20 family and friends and coworkers who pay $15 in dues every year that allow them to attend Punxsutawney events scheduled around the ceremony.
The club has a website -- www.theoutercirclegroundhogclub.com -- and an orientation toward service events. For three years, Mr. Skariot and Ms. Carpenter have raised money and collected toys in Phil's name that they donate to organizations around Pittsburgh. They hold a picnic in August to raise money for the Washington Area Humane Society, and last year, they held a spaghetti dinner fundraiser for South Hills Interfaith Ministries and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
But to really experience Phil, they have to go to Punxsutawney. They travel there in September for Phil Phest, a festival where Phil -- supposedly a few decades past the centenarian mark -- drinks from the elixir of life. And, of course, they are there in February.
Each year, regardless of what Phil forecasts, the Outer Circle agrees with the Inner Circle's standard line: Phil is always right.
Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1707.