Two days ago I lay in my hammock in a sun-dress, G&T in hand, enjoying a good book.  Yesterday saw me in a jacket and woolly hat at lunchtime, exchanging quintessentially British words of surprise over the sudden cold with neighbours passed during our daily walk.  Later, I regretted the decision to leave my coat as I nipped out to the greenhouse to swathe my trays of seedlings and tender young tomatoes in bubble wrap against the sharp night air.  

Every year, as my fingers itch to plant in late April, I am reminded of my mother’s advice to hold off planting outdoors until after my brother’s birthday: 13th May. This is her calendar marker for the last possible day of frosts and always seems  ridiculously late in the warmth of late April, until the cold snap comes. The contrast is always startling and yet completely normal for mid-May.  

This morning I found that this family marker has its parallel in a deep seam of folklore running throughout Catholic Europe.  On finding that May 12th is the feast of St Pancras, I idly Googled his name to see who this patron saint of exuberant London railway stations was. The answer was as startling as the dropping temperatures.  St Pancras is one of a number of Ice Saints, nothing to do with the wrong sort of snow or ice on the rails, but a group whose feast days fall in this mid-May week.  Depending upon where in Europe you live, St Pancras is joined in this chilly club by St Servatus, St Boniface of Tarsus, St Mamertus and St Sophia, known in Germany as Cold Sophia.  In Poland the practical relevance of this week is marked by the alternative saints’ club name of the Cold Gardeners.

The scientific basis for this folklore has been debated as far back as Galileo, suggesting that northern Europeans have been exchanging words of surprise over a sudden change in the weather for a very long time.  The Catholic calendar of saints’ days provided a framework for those conversations and I can imagine how, ‘Cold innit?  Yeah, weird for May.’ Came to be followed by, ‘S’always cold on St Pancras day though.’ With this essential gardening knowledge in mind, maybe next April I will find it easier to keep my young plants safely in their greenhouse until my brother’s birthday has passed.

Image of St Pancraz courtesy of Holger Uwe Schmitt through Wikimedia Commons