Remember last week’s article about making hay while the sun shines and not counting chickens before they’re hatched? And that these adages come from farming – very obviously so? Every once in a while, in a DIY store, I come across the Farmers’ Almanac of the current year, and I wonder whether anybody really uses it. Well, obviously they do, for otherwise it wouldn’t even get printed. It occurs to me that we had things like that in Germany way back when, too. And that we still have rhyming farmers’ rules. Some are about the upcoming days in May.
I remember some really frosty days in my childhood, which made my mother refer to “Cold Sophy” or to the so-called Ice Saints. Which in turn makes me aware that these cold days must have been in May. They are called the Ice Saints because they are the last nights in spring you can expect nightly frost in Europe and because they are, as any day in the Catholic church calendar, Saints’ Days. In this case it is St. Mamertus (May 11), St. Pancras (May 12), St. Servatius (May 13), and St. Boniface (May 14). The coldest night, according to the European almanacs is on May 15, St. Sophia’s Day, also nicknamed “Cold Sophy”.
Indeed, the meteorological phenomenon of a cold snap in late spring has been observed every once in a while, and it often coincided with the Ice Saints. But as so many things weather changes, and as weather knows of no calendar, I have my sincere doubts that it knows that it has to bring about some serious night frost on May 15. Students of Galileo observed a specific rhythm that was on spot with the Ice Saints between 1655 and 1670 (according to Wikipedia), but a report from the British Kew Gardens between 1941 and 1969 shows that May 13 was usually even a spectacularly warm day, followed by an especially cold snap. Come to think of it that the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar at one time, thus shoving some Saints Days around to different dates, we may not even be sure about the Saints names involved. What a heretic thought, but then I’m Protestant anyhow.
What made the farmers’ almanac with its rules so important way back when in Europe was, of course, planting season. When the days are warm and the skies are clear, with polar air streaming down south, nightly evaporation simply has to end up with frost … And frost kills the seeds. Which accordingly made sowing any kind of summer seeds a matter of “after May 15”, after “Cold Sophy”.
Return to Galileo’s students. They made their observations during a period that is known as a “Little Ice Age”, which lasted from the 1400s through the mid-1800s. But those days are long gone. During the past five to ten years, Germany hasn’t even experienced any real winter anymore – I have a hunch that “Cold Sophy” would prefer to enjoy some gelato herself these days on a May 15 if she were still alive.
When I came over here, the first May I experienced was one of the wettest and coldest I have experienced ever. I was freezing constantly, and the days were dark gray. Actually, that year ten years ago, the weather was nasty until July 5, and it only turned better around mid-July. I wonder what farmer’s rules would have had to say about that back then.
Now, I have my own little rule – not about the Ice Saints or about planting. I observe when I have about ten frost-free spring nights in a row and then start my planting outside. My little rule is rather about summer weather. And, so far, in ten years I have found it to work. If the weather is bad in June until June 20, you may expect another eight weeks of rather nasty summer weather. But if June 20 is sunny, you face eight weeks of sunny weather here in the Pacific Northwest. Now don’t hold me to it. I’m not a meteorologist; and I’m certainly no saint. I don’t intend to be a martyr and die, either, just to get my own rule set down in a farmers’ almanac, mind you. But every once in a while, it’s fun to check whether rules like these apply. Maybe you have made your own weather observations and want to share? I’m all ears!