Groundhog Day: Weather Predictor or Cultural Tradition?

Groundhog Day 2012

Groundhog by David St. Louis, on Flickr

This morning on February 2, 2012, a groundhog better known as Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his burrow and saw his shadow–which according to legend means that six more weeks of winter are in store.  Since 1886, this occasion, better known as Groundhog Day, has occurred annually on February 2 and still continues to fascinate people–this year alone, around 15,000 to 18,000 people were expected to witness the prognostication ceremony!

But is Groundhog Day an accurate weather predictor or more of a cultural tradition? Some might say it’s a bit of both. Today on the GoAbroad Blog, we take a look at the history behind this famous groundhog and some of the other worldwide traditions known to influence weather patterns. Is there one we overlooked? Let us know in the comments!

The History, The Superstition

Groundhog Day is obviously well-known in the United States of America and Canada, and is thought to have roots that trace back to Germany. It has been said that German immigrants brought the tradition with them from Germany, and as they settled in the hills of Pennsylvania, they began the tradition of using the groundhog to predict the the arrival of spring. This tradition comes from another tradition known as Candlemas–the day that is the midpoint between winter and spring.

According to the age-old superstition, if the groundhog sees his shadow there will be six more weeks of winter, as was the case this year. However, if the groundhog doesn’t see his shadow, it is predicted that spring is just around the corner. Whether or not you believe in the accuracy of Groundhog Day predicting the upcoming season, the United States and Canada are not alone in celebrating weather-prediction traditions. There are countless other beliefs from around the world that you may or may not have heard of before–either way, these superstitions give insight to the cultures that they originate from.

Weather-Prediction Traditions Around the World

1. St. Swithin’s Day

When it comes to predicting weather, the occurrence of rain has been well-documented. But what about when a rainy season depends on the happenings of one day? In England, this day is known as St. Swithin’s Day and occurs every July 15. It is the day that determines whether the rest of the summer will be sunny or rainy, and it is also believed that the the weather on that day will last another 40 days. As the verse associated with this legend goes:

“St. Swithun’s day if thou dost rain

For 40 days it will remain
St. Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For 40 days ’twill rain nae mare”

2. The Moon

According to Native American belief, if the moon looks like it is tipped on its back, it is holding water that will not spill. On the other hand, if it is tipped forward the water will spill from it in the form of rain. From weather predictions to religious ceremonies, the moon is a constant characteristic of Native American lore–while also still being ever changing throughout a variety of superstitions and stories.

3. Seven Sleepers Day

Also known as “Siebenschläfertag” in Germany,  this occasion falls on June 27th and according to belief, it determines the weather for the next seven weeks. As the name suggests, this day also commemorates the Seven Sleepers legend.

4. The Human Body

Have you ever been able to “feel” an oncoming event or change in weather pattern? It isn’t as unusual as you might think! The human body is capable of predicting coming storms and snow, showcased through a variety of signs: your joints may hurt more, or former injuries may increase in pain during low and high pressure systems. According to the ancient saying:

“A coming storm your shooting corns presage,
And aches will throb, your hollow tooth will rage.”

5. Protecting Veil Feast

In Russia, the weather that occurs during the feast of The Protecting Veil is popularly believed to indicate the severity of the forthcoming winter. This feast is typically celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches.

6. Ice Saints

As the legend goes, Ice Saints is the name given to St. Mamertus, St. Pancras, and St. Servatus in German, Austrian, and Swiss folklore–so named because their feast days fall on the days of May 11, May 12, and May 13. This period has been noted to bring a short time of colder weather in the Northern Hemisphere under the Julian Calendar. During these days, it’s not uncommon to witness some of the last nightly frosts of the spring.

Albatross folklore

Albatross by USFWS Pacific, on Flickr

7. Albatross

It may be associated with the days of sailors setting sail on the high seas, but according to legend, an albatross flying around a ship in mid-ocean was an omen of wind and bad weather to come. It was also very unlucky to kill an albatross because it was thought to embody the restless soul of some dead mariner. Would you say this superstition still holds true today?

8. Cattle

According to Icelandic folktales, if the first calf born during the winter is white, the winter will be a harsh one. A white-colored Icelandic cow is also considered rare, which may explain the basis for the superstition.

9. Cats

In yet another widespread belief, cats are known to be looked upon as an infallible weather forecaster. It has been said that if one sneezes then rain is sure to be on the way. In other legends, a cat sitting with its back to the fire indicates a storm, while a cat sharpening its claws on a table leg is a sign of a change in the weather–usually for the better. Have you noticed such a relation between your pet(s) and the weather?

And here’s a video from today’s Groundhog Day festivities in Pennsylvania, featuring Punxsutawney Phil!

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