Old Timers’ Wisdom: “May 10th Cold Spell”

PHOTO: Frost, Courtesy of Emmanuel Boutet
PHOTO: Frost, Courtesy of Emmanuel Boutet

This coming Sunday, low temperatures throughout most of Appalachia are expected to dip well into the thirties, with higher elevations in western North Carolina expected to drop into the mid-twenties.

These mid-May frigid weather predictions come in the wake of several sunburn-producing spring weekends and just a handful of days out from Memorial Day and the unofficial kick-off to summer and put me in remembrance of a phrase I often heard old timers state each year around this time: “The May 10th Cold Spell”.

To put it simply, “The May 10th Cold Spell” is a belief that was once very commonly held throughout America (and especially Appalachia), that either on or in the days around May 10th, the Northern Hemisphere would experience one final wave of chilly winter weather.

The belief dates all the way back to 1500s Europe and has been fueled by scientific hypothesis, Roman Catholicism, and just plain ole fashioned observation.

Belief in the “May 10th Cold Spell” can be traced to three Roman Catholic saints whom the church had long been celebrating feasts in their honor: Saint Mamertus, Saint Pancras, and Saint Servatius.  The feast dates of these individuals were May 11, 12, 13, respectively.  Not long into celebrating the feasts of these individuals, worshippers began noticing that on the day preceding the feasts, the weather would turn exceedingly cold.

As a result, these three individuals became known throughout Europe as “The Ice Saints” and the celebration of their feast often marked the last nightly frosts of the spring.

According to The Guardian, the mid-May cold spell was even investigated by students of Galileo, who diligently recorded the weather from 1655-70. “They reported a marked cold snap over the days of the Ice Saints, and later studies seemed to confirm their finding. It was even theorized that a belt of asteroids blocked out the sun’s rays over this period.”

As England shed its Catholic ways, the celebration of these individuals quickly passed away as well and American colonists replaced the term “Ice Saints” with “May 10th Cold Spell”.

Today, the belief in a handful of mid-May days being the final chilly days of spring is still alive and well, especially throughout Europe, where French gardeners often religiously await the Feasts of the Ice Saints prior to planting.

At the turn of the 1900s, the Royal Meteorological Society studied modern statistics to determine how much truth there was to the Ice Saints and they concluded that there was none and that the theory was a myth only.

Still, as we head into the weekend, weather forecasts throughout our region seem to be in agreement that opening day of the week of the Ice Saints will be cold… mid-twenties in western North Carolina and in the thirties in the two Virginias.  Perhaps the Ice Saints are coming a handful of days early this year.

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  1. Or maybe it’s what is commonly known as blackberry winter, the blackberry vines are blooming here in East Tennessee now and we always have chilly weather while the blooms are out

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