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THE VIEW FROM HERE: Groundhog Day and other superstitions

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This coming Saturday, Feb. 2, is Groundhog Day and historically speaking, we give a great deal of credence to what this little rodent has to say about the weather.

According to North American folklore, on Feb. 2, when a groundhog emerges from his burrow and fails to see his shadow because the weather is cloudy, then winter will soon come to an end and winter haters say hallelujah. Conversely, if the weather is sunny and the groundhog sees his shadow, he will retreat back into his burrow. Legend has it that his retreat foretells that there will be six more weeks of winter.

Nova Scotians have anointed Shubenacadie Sam as our chief weather prognosticator. Other famous groundhog meteorologists include Wiarton Willie and Gary the Groundhog in Ontario, Brandon Bob in Manitoba and Balzac Billy in Alberta while the granddaddy of them all is Punxsutawney Phil from Pennsylvania, USA.

While some people dismiss Groundhog Day and make fun of the old superstitions, the legend of the groundhog actually dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries in Germany and first came to North America via Pennsylvania. Today, Groundhog Day has practically become a national holiday with festivals, marching bands, banners and a full day of celebrations in some places.

Our superstitions, traditions, legends, old wives’ tales or whatever you want to call them, are no laughing matter. In fact, many people take them seriously, and for good reason. As a child growing up in rural Nova Scotia on the South Shore with our seafaring history, I was exposed to some unusual beliefs, traditions, superstitions and customs.

As I’ve said many times, my grandmother, the dear, sweet lady, was, I think, the most superstitious person I’ve ever known. She held tightly to many “old ways,” as she described them. It was through that early exposure that I developed my love for and interest in superstitions and old wives’ tales.

While logical people now dismiss many of these beliefs to be foolish or silly, my grandmother insisted they be followed to the letter. I’m amazed that I was not scarred for life. Perhaps that explains my life-long fascination with this subject matter. I found them unusual and interesting as a child and, I admit, I still consider them intriguing today.

Superstitions are part of our heritage. These traditions are hand-me-downs from earlier generations and they are an important part of who we are. They permeate our everyday existence, often on a subconscious level, but they are part of our lives, nonetheless.

Everyone knows that you touch wood for good luck, right? Or that it’s bad luck to spill salt or that you must never whistle on board a ship because it will bring on a bad storm. You know that, right? Sure you do. Often times, you just don’t realize how superstitious you truly are and those of you who do realize, don’t really want to admit it.

Over the years, I’ve maintained a collection of old wives’ tales and since we’re talking about Groundhog Day, the granddaddy of all superstitions, I thought it would be fun and, perhaps, a learning experience to share some of my favourites with you. Don’t ask me where some of these beliefs come from, but here goes.

Did you know:

  • If your pot boils dry while you are boiling your eggs, then it means a bad storm is coming.
  • Some early settlers told their children that witches lived in eggshells and that they made boats out of them and they would sail out onto the oceans in those boats casting spells upon the fishermen. The children were told that when they ate an egg, they should push their spoon through the bottom in the form of a cross before discarding the shell.
  • If you find a penny on the ground, you should pick it up, rub it on your bum cheek and put it in your shoe it will bring you good luck. Some people also believe that this only works if you put it in your left shoe. Others believe the shoe must correspond with the hand you used to retrieve the penny.
  • If you have money in your pocket when you hear the first peepers in the spring, then you will have money all year.
  • It is considered good luck to give a gift of a wallet or a purse with a coin or two in it; bad luck if it is empty.
  • If you sweep the dirt from your house through an open door, you also sweep away all your good luck.
  • If you hear three knocks at your door, but there is no one there, that’s called a token and it means someone in your family is going to die.
  • If the bottom of your feet itch, it means somebody has been walking over the ground that will someday be your grave or it might also mean that you are soon going to walk on strange ground.
  • If a door slams shut for no obvious reason, then it means someone in the afterlife is trying to get your attention.
  • If March comes in like a lion (stormy and windy) it will go out like a lamb (calm and mild).
  • Stabbing your knitting needles through your balls of yarn will bring bad luck to anyone who wears something made from that yarn.
  • If you bite your tongue while talking it means you have recently told a lie.
  • When you move into a new house, it is good luck to bring a new broom and a loaf of bread with you.
  • It is considered good luck if you break a lace while trying to tie your shoe.
  • It is bad luck to put a pair of shoes on a table.

So, back to Shubenacadie Sam. Let’s hope he doesn’t see his shadow. We’ll be watching.

I know for some people, these things sound like a bunch of hooey. However, let’s remember that just because we may not believe something or perhaps don’t want to take the time to understand, it doesn’t mean we should just dismiss such things as garbage because, frankly, there are things that happen in the universe that we just don’t understand.

Besides, on many levels, these things are fun and they can teach us about our past, or at least that’s the view from here.

Vernon Oickle was born and raised in Liverpool where he continues to reside with his family. He has worked for more than 30 years in community newspapers on the South Shore and is the author of 28 books.

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