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General · 2nd February 2015
Robyn Budd
The habit of deferring to a close relative of the ground squirrel with regards to winter’s longevity is as old and fascinating as it is … well, unreliable. It makes a great story, though, and it’s one that predates our version of Groundhog Day that began as a 19th century Pennsylvania German tradition.

The groundhog’s original preeminence as a seasonal beacon has its roots in an ancient mash-up of two calendar systems.

It began over 10,000 years ago when the late Neolithic peoples in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man took to building stone monuments to mark the astronomical midpoint between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. Many centuries later, as their particular brand of prehistory evolved into Celtic paganism, the festival of Imbolc celebrated these same ‘cross-quarter’ dates in the Celtic calendar. The festival was also associated with the goddess Brigid, whose portfolio was fire and the arrival of an early spring. Intending a successful farming season, Imbolc celebrants would light candles to invoke the increasing power of the returning sun. Weather divining was an essential part of the ritual, as winter dens were watched to see if serpents or badgers would emerge.

Fast forward to medieval Europe. The Christian Church retooled Imbolc as Candlemas, Brigid was booted out in favour of the Virgin Mary, for whose purification all those candles were now being lit. Hosting feasts, visiting holy sites, and doing a little divination on the side rounded out the festival’s playlist. The literature suggests that both bears and hedgehogs took turns as seasonal prognosticators, depending on availability.

It seems a no-brainer that winter-weary northern cultures would celebrate the calendar moment when daylight finally begins to make headway. Mythology aside, winter was a different animal in medieval Europe. The season frequently ended in early February, but was also known to go into overdrive from time to time. Since the natural hibernation cycle of hedgehogs brought them out of sleep mode around the time of Candlemas, the Europeans appointed them their serendipitous weather beacons. A Scottish poem sums it up: ‘If Candlemas Day is bright and clear / There’ll be two winters in the year’ – because the hedgehog would see his shadow and duck back in his den to wait out Winter 2.0.

The tradition morphed again in the 1800s as it traversed the ocean with German immigrants to an unpronounceable part of Pennsylvania. Candlemas was apparently as apropos in the New World as it was in Europe, with the exception that hedgehogs were hard to come by. Enter Marmota monax, a conveniently ubiquitous rodent belonging to the ‘large ground squirrel’ clan. So began Grundsow Day in North America.

As for Canadian content, the tradition of watching a groundhog emerge from its winter den to determine the weather of the next six weeks – well, it really took hold in the mid-50s in Wiarton, Ontario. In 1955 a local resident sent out an invitation to a hundred of his friends to come to the southwestern Ontario town for Groundhog Day celebrations. The Toronto Star got wind of the event and sent a reporter to the Bruce Peninsula to cover the story. Problem was, there really wasn’t one – just a tongue-in-cheek excuse for some major beer slinging. Long story short, the reporter crashed the scene at a local pub, and the party boys created his story for him. They grabbed a white fur hat and flung it in the snow, then gathered the whole grinning lot around the ‘groundhog’. The picture made it into Monday’s paper with the caption ‘High spirits, hole in ice, but as for groundhog – no dice.’

In true Canadian spirit a provincial, if not a national, mascot was born. Today 10,000 people routinely show up around February 2 in the South Bruce Peninsula to take part in the Wiarton Willie Festival.

As for its meteorological acumen, the groundhog plays to mixed reviews. The closer you live to Wiarton, no doubt, the more credence you give the rodent’s skill. Conversely, a 30-year study of 13 Canadian cities accords the furry forecaster a mere 37 per cent success rate in heralding winter’s end. But maybe that’s as it should be. Like the shaggy guy in the photo reminds us, ‘I’m a rodent, not a meteorologist.’