Munsolved Mysteries


(Dec. 12, 1996, Gazette)

Have a burning question pertaining to science, engineering, medicine, the arts, music, humanities, social sciences, physical education, or any other field? Let us know; we'll do our best to find the answers for you, drawing upon the expertise of members of the university community.

Rev. Reg Frampton, an alumnus in St. John's, writes:

According to the media, if the weather is sunny on Candlemas Day, or Groundhog Day (Feb. 2), the groundhog is frightened by its shadow and returns to its burrow for six more weeks of wintry weather. If the weather is dull and it doesn't see its shadow, then it stays out; this indicates that the worst of the winter is over, and spring is just around the corner.

This is the direct opposite to what I heard as a boy, growing up in the little village of Gin Cove, Trinity Bay. There was a poem we used to recite, which goes like this:

If Candlemas Day be fair and fine/The worst of the winter is left behind; But if Candlemas Day be dull and glum (or grum), Then the worst of the winter is yet to come.

Are there two opposing interpretations?

Dr. Philip Hiscock of Memorial's Folklore Language Archive was familiar with both versions of the weather prediction (and more besides), and was quite helpful in illuminating the subject.

"Candlemas Day marks the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin," said Dr. Hiscock. "It became known as Candlemas Day because in pre-Reformation England it was the day when a church's annual store of candles was blessed."

Dr. Hiscock explained that associated with this idea is the idea that Candlemas Day is the mid-way point of winter. For centuries in Britain, if grain and other supplies had only been half used by Candlemas Day, people knew they would probably have enough left to last the winter.

Today Candlemas Day is better known as the day when predictions about the duration of winter are made. Groundhog Day, an American ritual, occurs on the same day but is a more recent development of the belief.

"In Newfoundland there are three versions of the Candlemas verse, and each version has hundreds of variations," Dr. Hiscock said. "The one Rev. Frampton remembers is the one most commonly known and believed, even though it expresses the opposite of the Groundhog Day belief."

Dr. Hiscock said that a second version was recorded in Seal Cove, Fortune Bay:

If Candlemas Day is fair and fine,/Half the winter is left behind. If the day is dark and grum,/Half the winter has to come.

Less common is the Riverhead/Harbour Grace version, which expresses a belief most similar to Groundhog Day:

If Candlemas Day is fine and fair,/There'll be two winters in one year. If Candlemas Day is dirty and rough,/The rest of the winter will be fine enough.

In some parts of this province the animal that makes the weather prediction is a bear. (On the province's southwest coast, some claim to know where its den is!)

While some have postulated that the different versions of this prediction reflect the different weather conditions in the United States and Newfoundland, Dr. Hiscock said he thinks the whole idea is too lighthearted to have any basis in science.

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