Today is Groundhog Day, when loyal citizenry, local mayors, and rookie reporters troop to zoos across the country to eagerly await a midsize rodent’s reaction to the morning weather. Wiarton Willie, Punxsutawney Phil, and Staten Island Chuck will all have their moment in the sun (or cloud cover), and, meteorologic equipment be damned, we might still believe just a little bit that they hold the power in their tiny paws to banish the remaining weeks of wintery doldrums. Groundhog Day is perhaps the weirdest nationally acknowledged day of observance, stemming from a Pennsylvania German tradition in which a badger or bear would perform the groundhog duties. But it’s far from the world’s only piece of bizarre weather predicting lore. From watching a cow tail to gauging the height of wasp nests, these traditions will have you feeling grateful for The Weather Channel.
St. Swithin’s Day
In England, July 15th is the day that determines whether the rest of the summer will be sunny or rainy — the weather on that day will last another 40 days, supposedly. Or, in the verse form:
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
Catchy, right? We’re guessing that because it’s England, rain is the more likely option, anyway, but this particular weather tradition comes from St. Swithin, whose weather determining powers were posthumous only. When his body was buried outside against his instruction, it led to rain exposure and therefore… miraculous saintly meteorology powers? Apparently it has basis in fact: The jet stream around the British Isles usually settles on a course in about mid-July that holds until the end of August.
Seven Sleeper’s Day
Germany’s Siebenschläfertag, or Seven Sleepers Day, falls on June 27th and supposedly determines the weather for the next seven weeks. It refers to a tale in the Koran about a group of Christians who fall asleep in a cave and awake a hundred years later, only to die shortly thereafter. It’s not a particularly accurate system, and one leftover from agricultural traditions of central Europe. But still maybe better than a groundhog.
Cow Tail Direction
Before the golden age of storm-tracking, one of the favorite ways to figure out whether to bring an umbrella with you was to watch what the animals around you were doing, rodents or no. Some of these make more sense than others. Seagulls probably know what’s up about an upcoming storm because they fly around and sleep on the ocean. But farmer weather lore is a little bit sketchier. There’s the whole rhyme: “A cow’s tail to the west is weather coming at its best; a cow’s tail to the east is weather coming at its least.” Running out to a field with a compass seems like a pretty inaccurate way to figure out whether to bring a slicker, but the cow tail can serve as a primitive, bovine-directed weather vane. Winds to the east usually mean bad weather ahead. That’s cow science!
Speaking of animals’ tails, another old wives’ tale about the weather is that the bushiness of a squirrel’s fur can predict how harsh the coming winter will be. The poofier the tail, the thicker the coat, the harder the freeze to come. Turns out, this is not the case. It’s probably more likely that the more frightened the squirrel, the bigger its tail.
The Ice Saints, aside from maybe being an awesome name for a high school basketball team, are a group of the canonized whose feast days usually mean — you guessed it — ice, at least in a lot of Central and Eastern Europe. St. Mamertus, St. Pancras, and St. Savertius have feast days in the second week of May, and supposedly bring a week that’s colder than the rest of the month.
This one is handy if you happen to have a lot of seaweed around, we guess, but less useful for those of use who don’t live near a beach. Hanging dry seaweed outside your door at night is supposed to help you tell if the next day will be damp or dry. Dry seaweed = dry day, moist seaweed = straight puddles.
In Ireland and several other countries in Western Europe, there’s a legend that the month of March borrowed three days from April and rendered them totally miserable and blustery. It’s also a traditionally unlucky time of the year — the death of King James at the end of a particularly bad storm on the Scottish coast was blamed on the borrowed days. Similarly, in Scotland the middle days of February are said to be borrowed from January. All these swapping months — so promiscuous.
Onion Skin Thickness
According to superstitious grandmothers the world over, the best way to figure out how bad winter is going to be is no further away than your refrigerator. A thin-skinned onion means a mild winter, and a thick-skinned one means that it’s going to be a long and unbearable one. Does it work? Definitely not. But you can use that onion for a warming winter borscht. That’s what grandma would do, anyway.