The origins of Groundhog Day date back to medieval Europe. The day of 2 February corresponds with Candlemas, a Christian festival (see Religious Festivals) during which candles are lit, hence the celebration’s name. It dates back to pagan times, when farmers would purify their land by carrying torches in procession before sowing time. Excess flour was used to make crepes, a symbol of prosperity for the coming year. Since the 5th century, 2 February has been used to mark the Presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after his birth, a date that was chosen in accordance with the Gregorian calendar. The celebration also falls halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox.
In fact, many old proverbs draw links between the length of winter and the weather conditions that occur on this particular date. In Scotland, there was an old saying that “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, There’ll be twa [two] winters in the year.” In England, an old song elaborates on this idea: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come, Winter, have another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Go Winter, and come not again.”
Additionally, a relationship was established early on between the waking of hibernating animals (such as bears, otters and hedgehogs) and the end of winter (see Animals in Winter). According to European beliefs, spring’s arrival could be predicted based on the awakening of such animals. It appears that European settlers (particularly Germans) brought this belief with them to North America and relied on the marmot, one of the most widespread hibernating animals, to predict whether prolonged winter conditions or spring warming lay in store.
The Groundhog’s Forecast and Canadian Winters
Canadian winters are much longer and more intense than those in Europe. As winter food stores got low, the first European settlers hoped that spring would arrive early so they could sow earlier and therefore harvest earlier. However, the groundhog emerges from hibernation later than the European hedgehog, and it is much less likely to stir, even on warm winter days. While winter in Western Europe is normally finished by 2 February, in Canada it is usually still cold and snowy well past that date. The entrances to groundhogs’ burrows are also usually covered in thick layers of snow and ice in early February.
However, there is a kernel of truth to the shadow aspect of the legend. In winter, sunny days are usually associated with Arctic air, which is colder and drier, while cloudy days are associated with coastal air, which is milder and more humid. Since weather conditions often last several days, those on 2 February could continue to last for a few days (although not necessarily much longer than that).
Over time, Groundhog Day has become a fun way to anticipate the coming of spring. In North America, the tradition of predicting the weather by watching groundhogs come out of their burrows dates back to 1887 and is attributed to German settlers in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Today, the town hosts a week-long festival, in which all eyes are on the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil. In Canada, Wiarton Willie, of Wiarton, Ontario, is the most famous groundhog and has been predicting the weather since 1956. Like Punxsutawney Phil, Wiarton Willie is not a wild groundhog. He lives in a house in Bluewater Park, safe from predators, and the town of Wiarton cares for him year-round. Over the years there have been many iterations of Wiarton Willie, as the groundhog dies and another assumes its predecessor’s title. Up until 2020, Wiarton Willie was an albino groundhog. When Willie died sometime in 2020, no groundhog was available to make 2021’s prediction. On 2 February 2022, a brown Wiarton Willie made the prediction for the first time.
Since it is unlikely that Wiarton Willie would come out of his burrow on his own before early to mid-March (six to eight weeks after 2 February), he is awakened from hibernation to make his prediction. The event attracts thousands of curious onlookers, and is followed by activities including a parade, hockey and curling tournaments, dances, and even a pancake breakfast as celebrants of Candlemas would have done.
Other groundhogs across Canada play meteorologist as well, including Balzac Billy in Alberta, Groundhog Harvey in Oil Springs, Ontario; Fred la marmotte in Val d’Espoir, Quebec; Two Rivers Tunnel on Cape Breton Island; and Shubenacadie Sam in Nova Scotia. Shubenacadie Sam lives in Shubenacadie Provincial Wildlife Park and does not hibernate during the winter in order to put on a better show for tourists.
Even North American regions without mascots celebrate Groundhog Day. The phenomenon was immortalized in the American film Groundhog Day, which features Bill Murray as an arrogant meteorologist who is forced to live out the same day for the rest of his life.
Groundhog Day organizers maintain that the rodents’ predictions are accurate 75 to 90 per cent of the time. However, Canadian meteorological data prove that the groundhogs’ success rate is quite low. Meteorological data from 13 Canadian cities over the past 30 to 40 years indicate that there have been an equal number of sunny and cloudy days on 2 February. During this period, the groundhogs’ predictions were correct only 37 per cent of the time, meaning that winters remained cold for several weeks after the groundhog saw its shadow on 2 February, or that temperatures became much milder than usual if that day was too cloudy for a shadow to be seen. However, the groundhogs’ predictions were incorrect about two thirds of those years, either because they were the opposite of what they should have been, or because winter persisted naturally. Given that 33 per cent accuracy can occur by chance, a score of 37 per cent is not considered significant.