“No shadow, Bear did not see it.”
Thomas Andrew, 2 February 1907, Arden, Ontario.
Over the past couple of years, students and I have been poring over the Environment and Climate Change Canada collection of historical weather observations housed at Western University. We’ve gone through almost half the collection – maybe a million observations, dating from 1870 to 1960 – and we’ve come across only one reference to an animal and its shadow on 2 February. And it’s a bear.
The roots of Groundhog Day lie in medieval Europe, when good weather during the 2 February Catholic feast of Candlemas was considered a bad omen for the rest of the winter. A tradition developed that if a hibernating animal – a badger, bear, fox, or marmot, depending on where you were – emerged and saw its shadow that day, winter would last four or six more weeks. When Europeans came to America, they brought this bit of folklore with them.
In Canada, the animal of choice seems to have been the bear. “What child is not told,” asked the Toronto Globe in 1897, “about the brown bear emerging from his lair on the fateful 2nd of February….” This is the earliest reference to this folk wisdom I have found in the Globe, and it is worth noting it comes from a June article. The bear’s February activity was not yet February newsworthy. That’s not so surprising: noting the bear’s purported behaviour was just one of countless ways people had of interpreting and explaining the natural world. For example, Thomas Andrew, whose weather observation is cited above, also remarked on the first spring appearance of a wide variety of birds and other animals; when plants blossomed, trees leafed, and frogs piped; and when lake ice formed and broke up.
But to the south a rodent was rising. When the Pennsylvania Dutch had arrived in America they had adapted the 2 February tradition to the marmot’s local cousin, the groundhog. The term “Ground-hog Day” began appearing in the mid-19th century, Punxsutawney was hosting celebrations under that name by the 1880s, and by the end of the century it was the term of art across the U.S.
Groundhog hegemony came later to Canada, though. The Globe references the groundhog’s predictive power a few times around the turn of the century (including from American dispatches), but it does not refer to the holiday by name until 2 February 1929, and then in decidedly indecisive fashion. It notes, “Canadians have grown accustomed to accredit the gift of prophecy to the bear, and watch for the hour when old Bruin emerges from his hole, seeking his shadow on ‘Ground-Hog Day.’” One is tempted to compare this to Christmas Day, when Santa does all the work but Christ gets all the glory. The holiday was represented in this fashion in the Globe for a few years. “Tomorrow is Groundhog’s Day,” the newspaper stated in 1933, “also the day when Bruin the Bear comes out to broadcast his predictions as to future weather…” The following year the Globe for the first time reported on whether real, live animals saw their real, live shadows: groundhogs in Toronto, Brantford, and Windsor, and a bear in Orangeville.
There’s no evidence the groundhog has more prognosticatory power than the bear, but it possesses other advantages. It is portable: you can put it in a cage, carry it up to a podium, raise it to your shoulder, and have it whisper to you. It is common: whereas bears have been pushed away from areas populated by humans, there are more groundhogs in North America than ever before. And it is relatively docile – or at least unlikely to rip your arm off and kill you. It is little wonder that Canadians gradually surrendered to the practicality of the groundhog for Groundhog Day. Wiarton, Ontario asserting itself as the holiday’s headquarters in 1956, and subsequently inventing Wiarton Willie, is as much the culmination of a Canadian story as it is the beginning of one.
Today’s Environment and Climate Change Canada observers are much more likely to mention the groundhog’s shadow on 2 February than their forerunners were a century ago, by the way. “Happy Groundhog’s Day! (Six more weeks of winter. Ha! Ha! Ha!).” “Sunny cold I guess the ground hog seen his shadow.” “Overcast, sun trying. No shadow for Willy????” And yet today’s observers are far less likely to offer – and perhaps to know – natural history information that relates to the seasons. When they speak of the groundhog’s shadow, it’s the weather lore equivalent of going to church once a year on Christmas.
 “The Weather,” Toronto Globe, 2 June 1897.
 There were pockets of resistance. American author Mary Catherine Crowley may have been throwing some shade at the groundhog when she referred to “the traditional hedgehog” of Candlemas in her historical novel Love Thrives in War, 1903.
 “This is a Day of Great Import to All Wise Little Ground-Hogs,” Toronto Globe, 2 February 1929.
 “Radio Tabloid,” Toronto Globe, 1 February 1933.
 “Relief Promised by Weatherman,” Toronto Globe, 3 February 1934.
 In the “Groundhog Day” entry of the recently updated A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, the first example given of its usage comes from only 1955.
 Thanks to Environment and Climate Change Canada for also making 1.1 million of its 21st century observations available for comparative research purposes.
Latest posts by Alan MacEachern (see all)
- Online Event – Firebreak: How the Maine-New Brunswick Border Defined the 1825 Miramichi Fire - May 17, 2023
- Storms of a Century: Fiona (2022) & Five (1923) - November 10, 2022
- Climate at the Speed of Weather - October 5, 2021
- Restricted Clientele! Everyday Racism in Canadian National Parks - September 9, 2020
- Material World: Exhibiting the Anthropocene - May 4, 2020
- CHESS 2020 ~ keep the dates! - October 4, 2019
- Well-Grounded - July 10, 2019
- ICEHO Bulletin 19 - March 28, 2019
- Review of Mannell, Living Lightly on the Earth - February 6, 2019
- Canopy: An Interview with Alan MacEachern - January 15, 2019