It’s no surprise that humans in the northern hemisphere get a little stir crazy once the days become painfully short in November, and seem to take forever to become noticeably longer again as the calendar breaks into February. Out here on the wet coast, spirits are generally suppressed by endless days of gloomy rain, mist and a damp cold that gets into everything. One can take heart however, because by now the crocuses have generally started to pop and the daffodils aren’t far behind. Never-the-less, one can suffer severe cabin fever waiting for the moment when shorts and T-shirts become the semiformal west coast attire once again.
If you‘ve had the joy of living elsewhere in this great dominion, February generally means you only have three more months of skiing and sledding left, so it’s understandable that people will try to break up that seemingly endless stretch from New Years (party’s over) until that magic safe-to-plant Victoria Day weekend arrives.
Organized efforts to break up the winter doldrums are believed to have evolved in the fourth century on the halfway point between the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) and the spring equinox. The daylight starved people of the time decided if nature wouldn’t extend the light, they would do it themselves by lighting virtually every candle that could be found. Of course the early church was behind the celebration which they named Candlemas, and used the day to bless and distribute candles. Personally, I suspect it was originally called candle mess (have you ever seen what happens when candle wax runs all over the furniture and the rug?).
According to Wikipedia however, the celebration against desperation has its origins in ancient European weather lore, in which a badger or a sacred bear is the prognosticator, as opposed to a groundhog. It also bears similarities to the Pagan festival of Imbolc (the seasonal turning point of the Celtic calendar, which is celebrated on February 2 and also involves weather prognostication).
I can also understand why the celebration turned to using rodents to prognosticate. You wake one of them up the worst they’ll do is bite your finger. But who would be crazy enough to wake up a bear to participate in a little mid-winter silliness?
The German immigrants brought the celebration of Groundhog Day to Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries centered in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a town the Delaware Indians referred to as “ponksad-uteney” (the town of the sand flies – romantic!).
It was a newspaper editor, Clymer Freas, (there will be a test) who liked hunting and barbecuing ground hogs, who created the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. He took it upon himself to issue a proclamation declaring Punxsutawney Phil the official weather prognosticating rodent, and like any really foolish idea, it spread like wildfire. Everybody wanted in on the event. Weather-forecasting whistlepigs (as groundhogs or marmots are called) emerged all across the U.S. including, French Creek Freddie from West Virginia, Gen. Beauregard Lee from Georgia, North Carolina’s Sir Wally Wally, Smith Lake Jake from Alabama, and Staten Island Chuck from New York.
Of course we (Canadians) wouldn’t be left behind, and thus created Balzac Billy the “Prairie Prognosticator” from Alberta who said “six more weeks of winter”, Shubenacadie (shoo-ben ak-a-dee) Sam from Nova Scotia, on the other paw said, “winter is done” as did Ontario’s Wiarton Willie.
Meanwhile, back here on the wet coast, our early spring indicators are the Dragon and Lion who make an appearance to celebrate Chinese New Year (Kung Hei Fat Choi), and the Rooster who owns the next twelve months, and has lots of time to find his shadow.
Also, watch for the “nutcase humanoid” who emerges from a long winter delirium, and clad only in shorts, T-shirts and thongs, scrambles recklessly into the bush of Grouse Mountain seeking to return to the same old grind.
As for me, I can confidently forecast at least six more weeks of weather. Keep your toque handy folks!