Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Raindrops and Apples and Bumbershoots

When it comes to weather prediction, folks have all sorts of, well, unorthodox approaches. There is the personal approach: whether one's hair holds or loses its curl, or whether one has pain in one's joints. There is the the vegetation-examination approach: the shapes one sees inside a cut-in-half persimmon seed, or whether tree leaves are cupped up or or flat. And of course, there is the animal behavior approach: whether the cows in the field are lying down or standing up, or whether the geese cackle or honk. (Geese cackle? Really? So, do they say, "I'll get you, my pretty! And your little dog, too!" first? Or is it just the, "EEEEEeeee hee hee hee hee heee!" part?)

Anyway, whether animal, mineral, or vegetable, most non-scientific weather prediction methods have their roots in superstition, legend, folklore, and/or old wives' tales. Many of us here in the States, for example, are familiar with Groundhog Day, when thousands jam into the tiny Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney every February 2nd to see if Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) will see his shadow or not, with six more weeks of winter vs. an early spring hanging in the balance. Not to be outdone, the good people of England have their own unconventional weather prediction holiday: St. Swithin's Day.

To Rain, or Not to Rain: That is the Question
Observed every July 15th (or 15 July, as the Brits would list it), St. Swithin's Day may not have the cachet that a cute, pudgy, shadow-fearing mammal brings to the party, but it does predate good ol' Phil's annual spectacle by a significant number of years, having been in existence since Elizabethan times. In fact, St. Swithin's Day is the most famous of all the weather-related saints' days in the United Kingdom. (Oh, yes. There are others.) So, what exactly does St. Swithin's Day have to do with weather?

St. Swithin's Day if thou dost rain
for forty days it will remain.
St. Swithin's Day if thou be fair
for forty days 'twill rain nae mair.

Translation from Elizabethan-ese: If it rains on St. Swithin's Day, you can count on 40 more - in a row - just like it. If not, then count on 40 days without rain.

The Bishop's Wishes
According to legend, St. Swithin was a Saxon Bishop of Winchester Cathedral, famous both for charitable gifts, and for building churches. It was his deathbed wish to be buried outside the cathedral, not inside, so that people could walk across his grave and the rain could fall upon it. Honoring his wishes, the monks made it so upon his death in the year 862.

But a little over 100 years later, the monks felt St. Swithin's remains deserved new digs in a "splendid shrine" within the cathedral, and set out to move him on July 15, 971. However, the story goes that the Saint, by then well into his eternal reward and none too pleased with their decision, was the force behind a heavy rainstorm that fell not only that day, but for the next 40. There is little to confirm this particular bit of the narrative, and there are a few tweaks here and there depending on the source, but you know how rumors go. And, as rumors are wont to do, the story stuck, which led to the folklore spelled out in the rhyme above, which led English folks right up to today to be weather-watchers every July 15th.

Regarding the veracity of the whole "40 days more of the same" claim: it's been tested many times (55, at least, according to the book, Red Sky at Night), and alas, it has always proven false.

A Healthy Alternative
Yet, the St. Swithin's Day faithful need not despair that their devotion is all for naught. There is another saying associated with the day:
When it rains on St. Swithin's Day, it is the Saint christening apples.
How did this one come about? Apple growers in England, and indeed growers of food in general, had long held the old belief that when it rained, it was the saints watering their crops. And so, apple growers in particular seem to have taken quite a shine to the rainy reputation of St. Swithin and his most auspicious day. The skies opening on St. Swithin's Day, they assert, "blesses and christens the apples." Furthermore, it is commonly held among the growers that no apple should be picked before July 15th. And finally, any apples still growing at St. Swithin's Day are destined to ripen fully. How's that for something to look forward to?

It Wasn't Raining When Noah Built the Ark...
It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that two of the symbols for St. Swithin's Day are raindrops, and apples. So, with the possibly soggy celebration nearly upon us, I wish you a very pleasant St. Swithin's Day, whether wet or dry. Grab an apple on your way out the door on July 15th, to keep the spirit of the day. And don't forget to grab your trusty bumbershoot, too. Just in case.