Saturday, February 02, 2008



February 2 is 'Groundhog Day'. This is the day in the USA and Canada when a groundhog (also known as a woodchuck, marmot or ground squirrel) supposedly emereges from his burrow to observe his shadow. If he sees it, ie if the sky is clear, there will be six more weeks of winter (there's always a lot more up here in Winnipeg). If the sky is cloudy and he doesn't see his shadow there will be an early spring.

The earliest reference to Groundhog Day per se is found at the Historical Societyt of Berks County in Reading, Pennsylvania. This is from a diary entry dated February 4th, 1841 where storekeeper James Morris says, "Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas Day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloiudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate".

As can be seen from the above Groundhog Day derives from a earlier body of folklore surrounding Candlemas Day. This is the feast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, and it coincides with the pagan festival of Imbolc. Imbolc is one of the four "cross-quarter" days in the year, between events such as solstices and equinoxes. Spring was sometimes taken to begin at this cross-quarter day, while others held that it began at the Vernal Equinox on either march 20th or 21st. The groundhog called the shots about which was true. There's a an old poem about this tradition:

"As the light grows longer

The cold grows stronger

If Candlemas be fair and bright

Winter will have another flight

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain

Winter will be gone and not come again

A farmer should on Candlemas Day

Have half his corn and half his hay

On Candlemas Day if thorns hang a drop

You can be sure of a good pea crop.

(I hope it scans better in dialect-Molly)

In Europe it was the custom to bless candles on Candlemas Day and distribute to the congregation. A lighted candle was placed in each window on the home on the night following Candlemas. In Germany people looked for a badger to see whether he saw his shadow or not. A German poem on the suject translates as follows:

"For as far as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,

So far will the snow swirl until May.

For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,

So far will the sun shine before May.


Many communities make their local groundhog into a celebrity. To the left is the billboard announcing 'Punxsy Phil', the mascot of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Famous Canadian groundhogs include Brandon Bob of Brandon, Manitoba, Balzac Billy of Balzac, Alberta, Gary the Groundhog of Kleinburg, Ontario, Shubenacadie Sam of Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia and Spanish Joe of Spanish, Ontario. The most famous of all, however, one who has become something of a Canadian icon is Wiarton Willie of Wiarton, Ontario. His official website is highlighted above. Willie's tale began in 1956 when Wiarton Mac Mckenzie sent out for a "Groundhog Day Festival". It was something of a joke, but one of the invites came into the hand of a Toronto Star reporter. He travelled to Wiarton, and when he asked around everybody went "Whaaa ? What Festival ?" . Finally someone suggested that he try the local bar, the Arlington Hotel. Here he found McKenzie and friends boozing it up. They invited the reporter to join them. The next day, in the harsh brightness of sobriety, he whined to McKenzie that he had to have some story to justify his expenses (one wonders if he bought rounds). McKenzie stole his wife's fur hat, went out into the snow in the parking lot and dug a hole. He then pulled the hat out of the snowbank and made a prediction from what the hat saw (shadow of not). After the reporter had bedded down the party continued. Nobody apparently remembered what McKenzie had predicted.

The next year 50 people, half of them reporters, showed up for the festival, and it has grown since then. The Arlington continued to prosper handsomely from the event. One hopes that they offered Mckenzie and friends free beer in gratitude. In the beginning the prediction was made by a ghostly trio of groundhogs called Grundoon, Muldoon and Sand Dune. They were extremely hard to spot unless one had spent sufficient time in the Arlington's bar. In the 1980s Willie arrived on the scene, and his preternatural powers were ascribed to Wiarton's location on the 45th parallel, exactly halfway between the equator and the North Pole. Now the town had a visible groundhog.

As town ambassador Willie is something of a politician (or is it bureaucrat ?). Thus it is no surprise that his career ended in scandal. Willie lived to the age of 22, passing away two days before his big show in 1999. Oh Shit !!!!! In a big panic the organizers of the festival presented a groundhog in a coffin, dressed in a tuxedo, with coins over his eyes (one wonders how he could see any shadow) and a carrot in his paws. The scandal broke when it was found out that Willie had actually gone too rotten to use and that the groundhog was actually a different groundhog, one specimen stuffed and acquired from God knows where. The Associated Press was obliged to print a retraction on its newswire. Since then Willie has been succeeded by Wee Willie and Wee Willie 2. Even the latter is now deceased, and the world holds its breath to see who will be the next groundhog. Wiarton meanwhile thrives from the event. Each year about 10,000 people now attend their festival. The event has twice been named "the World's Greatest Event" by the Seattle-based Festivals.Com. Even from the grave Willie has stretched out his paws to influence those around him. He was, if fact, named as a suspect in a double murder case. Seems his understudies were mysteriously found dead in 2003.

A history of Groundhog Day was be found HERE. There is also an online collection of links about this date HERE. Wiarton Willie's home page is highlighted above. There is also a page devoted to profiles of famous groundhogs around the world (well, North America actually) HERE.

That's it for now. Remember to watch out for sunlight. Also, as to what the weather will be...."Who knows what evil lurks in the clouds ? The Shadow knows.....Whaa Ha Ha Haaaw !"

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