May is a strange weather month in Northern Europe. The past few Aprils in Frankfurt have had a high number of quite hot and sunny days, even if they start out with cool temperatures in the mornings. As May began, however, the temperatures have gone down. You may have the heat running, and the wind and rain have had an extra cold bite whenever you leave the house. This has a long tradition in Europe, and it has a name. The “Eisheiligen” refers to the period in May when, according to popular farmers’ lore, the weather is still too unstable to plant crops because of the danger of frost.
The Ice Saints (Eisheilige in German, les Saints de Glace in France) is the common name given to St. Mamertus, St. Pancras, and St. Servatius in Flemish, French, Dutch, Hungarian, German, Austrian, Polish, Swiss and Croatian folklore. They are so named because their feast days fall on the days of May 11, May 12, and May 13 respectively. The period from May 12 to May 15 was noted to bring a brief spell of colder weather in many years, including the last nightly frosts of the spring, in the Northern Hemisphere under the Julian calendar. The introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 involved skipping 10 days in the calendar, so that the equivalent days from the climatic point of view became May 22–25.
People used to believe that it was not safe to plant crops until after the Ice Men were gone. There’s also a proverb in England: “Ne’er cast a clout till May be out.” A “clout” being clothes, as in “Don’t take off your winter clothes till the end of May”. It’s kind of reassuring that those ancient weather observations still apply, what with climate change and all that.
Scientists have been unable to determine that there really is a higher chance of frost in May, but anytime the weather dips from warm to cool in May, Germans start talking about the Ice Saints.
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