Perhaps you’ve heard the old proverb that warns not to plant until after the “Three Ice Men” have passed, but do you know who these mysterious Ice Men are? The tradition comes from Northern Europe, and is tied to the successive feasts of St. Mamertus, St. Pancras, and St. Servatius, whose respective days occur on May 11, 12, and 13. They are also sometimes referred to as the “Three Chilly Saints.”
In Europe’s not-too-distant past, parts of the continent remained rather cold through the middle of May, making planting before then risky. German and Swiss lore refers to mid-May as “Iceman Days,” while an old French saying states “St. Mammertius, St. Pancratius and St. Gervatius (the Francophone spelling of the three saints’ names) do not pass without a frost.” Because the agrarian people of medieval Europe weren’t likely to be literate, let alone aware of calendar dates, they measured time by observing nature and by the church calendar. Remembering that the last frost of the year generally falls around the feast of Servatius was a useful marker for pre-modern farmers.
In some regions, the lore goes on to note that rain will fall on feast of St. Sophia, marking the beginning of planting season. For this reason, May 15 is referred to as “Zimna Zoska,” or “Cold Sophia” in Poland.
One point of interest is that this bit of lore dates back to before the creation of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, at which time most days of the year shifted somewhat. While the feasts of the Three Chilly Saints are still celebrated from May 11-13 on our calendar, these days used to fall a little later in the astronomical year — from May 19-22.
Do you wait until after the Ice Men to plant your garden in spring? Share your thoughts.