Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day
Forgot it was Groundhog Day today, until they broadcasted it on the radio. Turns out there are some conflicting reports from the large rodents about when spring is going to show up.

The most famous prognosticator of spring tidings is easily Punxsutawney Phil, whose prediction this year is that there are six more weeks of winter.

However, a couple of other large rodents say otherwise:

Cheery predictions by Ontario's Wiarton Willie and Alberta's Balzac Billy, who emerged before chanting, pancake-eating crowds and didn't see their shadows - a sign of early spring - were offset by two other furry forecasters suggesting a long winter.

Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie Sam, a woodchuck that lives in a heated den where's he pampered with carrots and broccoli, waddled out of his cosy nursery Wednesday and saw his shadow, suggesting another six weeks of wintry weather. Pennsylvania's Punxutawney Phil saw his shadow on Gobbler's Knob after being pulled from his burrow in an oak stump by a top-hatted handler.

"It's still a gorgeous day, and we have to get out there and enjoy winter," said a spokeswoman at Shubenacadie Wildlife Park near Halifax. "We've had an incredible turnout. This event is getting bigger every year. People need something to celebrate in February."

Amid chest-high snowdrifts and temperatures around -13 C, the crowd of 200 at the park near Halifax sipped hot chocolate and coffee to keep their spirits up. At the other end of the meteorological map, several hundred people in Balzac basked in plus-10 degrees when their rodent poked his head above ground.

"It's going to be an early spring, so everyone's celebrating," said Don Grasley from Balzac.

Whether it's Shubenacadie Sam, Wiarton Willie or Balzac Billy, the bogus weather forecasts from these coddled animals attract national attention every Feb. 2 - Groundhog Day. Even though everyone knows it's a crock - groundhogs in the wild actually hibernate until March or April - there seems to be a deep, nationwide need for this kind of mid-winter event.

"It's of particular interest to Canadians, who suffer like prisoners being tortured once a year in the winter," says Murray Pomerance, who heads the sociology department at Ryerson University in Toronto.

"What Groundhog Day does is give everybody a kind of holiday where they can officially get together and hope for the end of winter, which is a kind of public celebration. So I see it as the true Canadian winter holiday."

Newspapers are always looking to give their readers a lighthearted break from the usual murder and mayhem on the front page, and Groundhog Day fits the bill.

"It also gives you an opportunity to film or shoot a picture of a cute animal," says Suanne Kelman, who teaches journalism at Toronto's Ryerson University. "If you get really lucky, the animal bites someone. What more could you ask?"

The tradition of Groundhog Day began in 1887 in Punxsutawney, Pa. Early German settlers there believed that if the sun shone on Feb. 2, the Christian feast of Candlemas, then snow would still be swirling in May. Dozens of communities across North America have since come up with their own weather-predicting woodchucks.

If you don't believe the groundhogs, there's always Environment Canada, which boasts an accuracy rate of up to 65 per cent - depending on region - in its long-range forecasts. Forecaster Dan Kulak says the agency is predicting above-normal temperatures for most of the country this month - except for a strip of Central Canada including Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, where it will be colder than usual.

"If that's an indication that spring is around the corner, if anyone wants to make that stretch, it's up to them," says Kulak.

(From Canadian Press)

Since most of the people I know only have a vague idea where Pennsylvania is, and only the vaguest ideas of what Pennsylvania might be known for, I thought I would post some local colour. I told David that it was broadcasted on the radio that Gobbler's Knob (!!) -- home of Punxsutawney Phil -- was having some celebrations, cookouts, roasts, etc. I asked him where this place was, and he wasn't really sure.

"Somewhere in central Pennsylvania," he said. "There's nothing there but farmland." I guess it goes without saying that only places far removed from commercial centres would have a furry creature as their local celebrity.