It is official. 'Willie' didn’t see his shadow and therefore predicts that spring will arrive early this year.
Willie’s prediction was done in a unique way for the 65th anniversary of the annual tradition due to COVID-19.
A video featuring Willie's history was supplied to local media and included Mayor Janice Jackson revealing the official prediction.
In the video, Willie’s place is taken by a hat for comedic effect, but Jackson tells us that Willie did not see his shadow and so it will be an early spring.
The annual in-person festivities did not take place this year, but the Town of South Bruce encouraged the public to tune in online for the 65th annual prediction.
The video included messages from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
Last year there was some confusion around Willie’s prediction when Jackson misinterpreted his forecast and declared six more weeks of winter.
Hat toss has historic links
The gesture of throwing a hat isn’t an insignificant gesture. It’s a nod to the festival's origin in 1956 when Wiarton resident Mac Mckenzie threw a hat to the ground and made the proclamation to a Toronto newspaper reporter. McKenzie would go on to be apart of the festival well into his 80s
“We wanted to do something that paid tribute to the history of Wiarton Willie,” says Jackson.
The folklore actually goes back even further, and identifies a different species as Canada’s first weather prognosticating animal.
“Bears seemed to be the animal of choice throughout the 19th century,” says Alan MacEachern, a history professor at Western University. He says the tradition followed settlers from Europe for a very specific and important reason.
“Feb. 2 is halfway between the first day of winter and the last day of winter, or first day of spring. A few hundred years ago you’d want to make sure, in the middle of winter, you had enough food laid by to last the rest of the year.”
MacEachern says early settlers would gauge what was coming by the patterns of hibernating animals like bears or foxes - if they came out to look for food it meant spring would be early.
But Canada's neighbours to the south favoured the groundhog and even formally gave the date its now signature name, which made for a confusing time for Canadians.
“Canadians knew that traditionally it had been the bear, but they also knew that it was becoming known as Groundhog Day, so they would say things like, ‘It’s Groundhog day, I wonder if the bear saw its shadow?’"
By the 1930s the bear had fallen out of the tradition, but three years ago in Milwaukee a zoo that had just lost its favourite groundhog to old age revived the bear tradition for one year.
But don’t expect Willie to be replaced after a one-year hiatus. Jackson says plans are already underway for his triumphant return next February.
“It was really unfortunate that we lost the event this year, but next year we’ll come back twice as strong.”