The man in the top hat had spoken, the groundhog song had been sung and the president of the historical society had lectured about the long tradition of rodents predicting the weather.
All attention turned to the orange flag that covered a freshly dug hole in the lawn of the Catonsville Historical Society building. The man in the top hat lifted the flag and a furry face with pointy ears, a big black nose and buckteeth peeped over the edge of the hole.
The crowd cheered, but not 9-year-old Paige Aldave. She turned to her 7-year-old sister Andie and shook her head: "It's a fake."
The Aldave sisters joined more than 50 people yesterday at the historical society to see if Catonsville Catey, the local answer to Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil, would see her shadow. She did not, which means that spring should come early to the Baltimore area, according to Ben Ebersole, a member of the historical society.
Looking debonair in a black top hat and coat with long tails, Ebersole, a retired assistant superintendent with the Baltimore County public school system, was the driving force behind the event and the emcee. He claims to speak Groundhog Greek, a language that he says is related to pig Latin.
Catey, a cousin of Phil's, left Pennsylvania and was traveling to Florida when she passed through Catonsville, Ebersole told the crowd assembled on the lawn. She was smitten by the western Baltimore County neighborhood and decided to stay, he said.
"She is a Southern lady," Joan Bender, president of the historical society, said of Catey. "No self-respecting Southern lady would be up at the crack of dawn."
Catey and Phil are not the only groundhogs with a flair for forecasting the weather. In Georgia, Gen. Beau Lee, Ph.D., concurred that winter would wrap up sooner rather than later, according to the Web site of the Yellow River Game Ranch, his home. Chuck, New York City's Groundhog Ambassador Plenipotentiary, announced his forecast yesterday as well, according to the Staten Island Zoo's Web site.
The custom of using groundhogs to predict the weather dates back to fifth-century Germany, Bender said. Feb. 2 falls halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox, and coincides with the Christian holiday of Candlemas, as well as a Celtic festival.
Strumming his guitar, Eric Ebersole led the crowd in singing a song that he had written for the occasion, "Ode to Catonsville Catey."
"Now comes the moment of suspense," his father, Ben Ebersole, said. He lifted the flag from the hole as Carl Milleker tugged on a length of fishing line.
Paige, the 9-year-old, pointed at the orange flag and bent to whisper in the ear of her cousin, Hally Aldave, 5.
Catey rose up stiffly, paws outstretched, a white tag visible on her behind.
Paige, Katie and Hally clapped, then frowned in confusion. "That's not real," said another cousin, Jack Aldave, 6.
"It's a puppet," said Olivia Merryman, 5, jumping up and down in her pink coat.
"You know, at the zoo they have real groundhogs there," her father, Jon Merryman, said.
It took him a minute to realize that Catey was a toy.
"I didn't know until I saw the teeth," he said. "It was the right color and fuzzy."
After the ceremony was over, neighbors Lisa Nelson and Sara Angell and their children checked out Catey.
"Don't lose anyone," said 4-year-old Brooke Nelson as she peered down into the hole.
Angell hoisted Catey up by the fishing wire as Emma, her 5-year-old daughter, asked if she could pet the groundhog.
"She can't bite, Mom, she's not real," Brooke told her mother.
Ben Ebersole said that he is considering getting a real groundhog for next year's event. At any rate, this year was better than last, he said, when they had only a photograph of a groundhog.