MILLTOWN, NJ - For folks that have been fans of the Bill Murray classic "Groundhog Day," but can't make the trek all the way out to Punxsutawney, PA on a work and school day to see if winter will stay around for six more weeks or if the region will see an early spring, there's a Garden State alternative that is closer than you think.

Milltown has been celebrating Groundhog Day in style for the past nine winters courtesy of Jerry and Cathy Guthlein, the owners of Milltown Mel. The inaugural Groundhog Day took place at the Bronson and Guthlein Funeral Home. However, it didn't take long for the February 2 tradition to grow and the enthusiasm for Groundhog Day to catch on. Today, Milltown Mel checks his shadow every February 2 at the American Legion Post 25 on 4 JFK Drive.

The original Milltown Mel made his predictions for seven winters until he quietly passed in his sleep in the summer of 2016. Milltown Mel II took over the duties, making his first prediction in 2016. The Guthlein's were huge fans of Murray's "Groundhog Day," taking a trip out to Punxsutawney to experience the time-honored tradition first hand. Jerry Guthlein even penned a book about Mel's adventures, titled "Milltown Mel: A Groundhog's Story." The children's book is available online.

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Punxsutawney's first Groundhog's Day dates all the way back to 1887. However, the tradition stretches back even further, beginning with ancient Christians who marked Candlemas Day. Clergymen would handout blessed candles. The candles would mark how long and cold the winter would be. This tradition was passed along to the Germans who added an important component; an animal who renders weather predictions.

German settlers brought the ritual to Pennsylvania, making one significant change. Originally, the folks in Germany utilized a hedgehog to predict whether or not spring would arrive early. When the German settlers were unable to locate a hedgehog in their new home, they substituted a groundhog and the rest as they say is history.

The Milltown Wranglers, dressed in black overcoats and top hats, will be on hand to see whether or not Mel will see his shadow. Festivities begin at 7 a.m. on Friday, February 2. Milltown Mel will be making his 2018 prediction at around 7:20 a.m. Visitors are invited to join in on the Groundhog Day fun. Noise makers are welcome to help wake up Mel for his big moment. Coffee and doughnuts will be served afterwards at the American Legion.

Now, as legend has it, if the groundhog sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter. Last year, Mel predicted an early spring and the area had a surprise March blizzard that dropped around a half of foot of snow in Milltown and the surrounding communities. So, what's it going to be this year Mel? An early spring or a longer winter?

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