Well, it’s when some special rodents, groundhogs (marmot), emerge (or are awakened) from their hibernating quarters and “predict” whether we can expect an early spring, or much more winter to come.
This year, the first weather groundhog was Shubenacadie Sam, in east coast Nova Scotia, and the verdict was…no shadow so an early spring.
Alas, one of Canada’s other famous weather marmots, Wiarton Willie, in Ontario, gave a different view. From his twitter account, the albino groundhog said that when he emerged from his home, he saw a shadow, and predicted there’s still a lot more winter to come.
Where does this tradition come from? Well it has murky origins.
The tradition seems to go back to a Christian festival of medieval Europe where candles were lighted to celebrate the presentation of Jesus at the temple. There were also sayings in England that went something like,”If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come, Winter, have another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Go Winter, and come not again.”
The celebration also has an even alder Celtic Celtic celebration of Imbolc, the beginning of spring, which was also set in the first days of February.
How or why Europeans somehow connected weather prediction and old saying to small hedgehogs is murky at best.
Then as English and European settlers came to Canada, they found no hegehogs here, but the next closest thing seems to have been the somewhat larger groundhog.
The tradition in Wiarton, the first “official” groundhog in Canada, began in true Canadian fashion, in a bar.
In 1955 some Wiarton friends organized a party in the bar of the local Arlington Hotel to celebrate Groundhog day. In the big city of Toronto, a little over 200 kilometres to the south, a reporter got wind of the celebration.
When he got to the small town, he joined the party in the bar, and the next day realized he had no story. He got the leader of the group from the night before, Mac McKenzie and told him his problem. Mac got a few friends together outside, took a white fur hat from a woman and put it on the ground. The reporter then took a photo of the “albino groundhog” with a few people gathered around.
The story made the Toronto paper the next day. The following year a few more people showed up, enjoyed the fun..and a few more after that, until it became a popular annual excuse for a party which now stretches for several days.
It wasn’t until 1980 that an actual albino groundhog was found, and the event went big-time. Now as many as 10,000 people will flood into Wiarton just for the event.
We’re still waiting for Alberta’s Balzac Billie, which originally in the 1970’s was a Richardson ground squirrel, or gopher in an event staged out in a field, but that’s changed to a mascot since 2004 as the growing event moved to a big garden centre and a pancake breakfast
As for the accuracy of the various groundhog forecasts, well, it seems they don’t quite reach 40 per cent accuracy in general, except for Balzac Bill, who claims around 80 per cent
As for the American marmot, Puxantawny Phil in Pennsylvania, reported saw his shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter.