The Significance of February Second

If someone were to ask What is the significance of todays date? How would you respond? Before writing this column, I decided to put this question to some customers at a local supermarket. Selected at random they were simply the first people that I happened to encounter during my walk around the store.

Im happy to report that all who were asked, came up with the same answer: Feb. 2nd is Groundhog Day! One or two were prepared to tell me what they thought about this silly superstition. Others simply expressed the hope that the groundhog would not see his shadow, and that after all this [… censored… ] winter weather, spring might come early. They were the true believers!

If nothing else, these responses prove the point that Feb. 2nd is deeply rooted in Canadian folklore. This is all the more remarkable as Groundhog Day is not a public holiday, nor is it associated with a major catastrophe such as 9 11 or the Boxing Day tsunami of recent memory. It does not even mark a turning point in local or national history. Despite this lack of background, whenever Feb. 2nd is mentioned, people instinctively associate it with the lowly groundhog.

Is the response merely wishful thinking in midwinter? Possibly, because in the folklore of several countries, the groundhogs activities are weather related. Simply put, when this animal comes out of his burrow on Feb. 2nd, if the sun is shining and he sees his shadow, he returns underground for six more weeks of winter. If, however, the day is overcast and he cannot see his shadow, an early spring is just around the corner.

It will not be a surprise to learn that this folkloric tale has its roots in mediaeval Europe. In the Christian calendar, Feb. 2nd marks the celebration of the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Candles are blessed on this day, giving rise to the name Candlemas Day. Since this date also marked the midpoint of winter, halfway between the winter soltice, and the spring equinox, the notion arose that the weather on Candlemas Day might foretell what would take place during the rest of the winter.

Thus a bright and sunny Candlemas Day suggested that there was more winter to come; while a cloudy overcast day meant that winter would soon be over. Over time this concept became enshrined in a rhyme: If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter has another flight./If Candlemas is cloudy and grey, winter soon will pass away. Variations of this rhyme were to be found in many European countries.

One Candlemas tradition imported from England, and still observed in outport Newfoundland, is unrelated to weather. It involves the serving of a special Candlemas bread or cake. The cake is then served at a party that takes place on the evening of Feb. 2nd. Sometimes the social gathering is also referred to as the Candlemas Cake.

Insertion of the groundhog in the Candlemas story seems to have originated in Germany. Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, USA was settled by Germans immigrants, and since groundhogs were plentiful in the area, this animal took the place of the bear or other hibernating animals, who had been linked to the legend in Europe. The first Groundhog Day, took place in this community, when the local newspaper reported: At the time of going to press on Feb. 2nd, 1886, the groundhog has not seen its shadow. The groundhog was named: Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary. For the record, Phils first prediction was correct. In his debut performance there was no shadow and an early spring followed.

During the twentieth century, media attention guaranteed that Groundhog Day would emerge in Canada. Today, this date is unofficially recognized from coast to coast. In British Columbia the weather groundhog is Nanimo Ned, Alberta has Balzac Billy and Manitoba, Brandon Bob. The only groundhog of record in Atlantic Canada is Shubenacadie Sam. He holds forth every Feb. 2nd., in the Shubenacadie Wildlife Park. Not so well known is Gary the Goundhog, who inhabits a burrow near Kleinburg, Ontario.

Undoubtedly Canadas most famous weather-predicting groundhog is Wiarton Willie, to be found in a village on the Bruce peninsula in Ontario. Willie is the fifth groundhog to to take centre stage in Wiarton since 1956. His predecessors were: Grundoon, Muldoon, Dandune, Wee Willie and Willie. Each year there is a Wiarton Willie Festival and the rodent even boasts his own web site. If you check it out you will find the festival details plus an official record of his predictions.

According to the Canadian Press, weather forecasting based on the groundhogs appearance is, scientifically speaking, slightly suspect. Over the last forty years, when theres been roughly an equal number of sunny and cloudy days on Feb. 2nd., the groundhog has been accurate only thirty seven percent of the time. When I mentioned this statistic to a true believer, his retort was: Well the Canadian Weather Service forecasts are not always accurate.

The origin and evolution of the groundhog legend has been summarized above; however, one question remains. Why has a folkloric tradition of this type survived so many centuries? There is no easy answer, for such traditions not only have deep roots; they have a habit of adjusting to fit changing circumstances.

While it can never be proven, one possibility for the recent surge of interest in Feb. 2nd might be the popularity of the American movie Groundhog Day. Released in 1993, it was a box office hit, and may still be found in stores that rent older films or on televisions late night movie circuit. The actor Bill Murray, plays a weatherman for a television station. The story begins with his trek to Puxatawney, Pennsylvania for the appearance of the groundhog.

On this occasion, due to a sudden storm, cast and crew must stay on location until the weather improves. But something strange happens when the weatherman awakens in the morning it is Groundhog Day all over again! He makes several drastic attempts to leave town, but on every occasion, the next day is always Groundhog Day. I will not reveal the ending and thereby spoil the story; however, if you are interested in the lore and legend associated with Feb. 2nd, its worth watching.