Die Eisheiligen

Boniface tar

Ever since the winter of record-breaking lightless gloom ended in early April, the weather has been great – blue skies and warm sunshine. Until May 11, when the mercury dropped and a cold wind blustered in. Die Eisheiligen had arrived on schedule. In Germany, as in much of northern Europe, the period of May 11-15 often brings a mid-spring cold spell. This weather phenomenon is known as die Eisheiligen, the Ice Saints, which sounds like a Catholic high school ice hockey team but actually refers to the saints whose feast days fall in this period.

Because of the danger that frost in May poses to farmers’ crops, old folk sayings about the Ice Saints’ cold and ruinous hearts abound. First up is St. Mamertus (May 11): Der heilige Mamerz hat von Eis ein Herz. The historical record says nothing about the temperature of Mamertus’ heart, revealing him rather as the fifth-century bishop of a southeastern French diocese that was afflicted by earthquakes, fires and assorted calamities, to which he responded with a regimen of fasting, prayers and processions.

May 12 brings St. Pancras of Rome, a martyr beheaded at age 14 in the year 304: Wenn’s an Pankratius gefriert, so wird im Garten viel ruiniert. There is little historical information about Pancras. He is the patron saint of children, and his relics are believed to have made their way to England, where many things are therefore named after him.

The third Ice Saint, Servatius, has his feast day on May 13. Pankratz und Servaz sind zwei böse Brüder, was der Frühling gebracht, zerstören Sie wieder. An early bishop of the Low Countries, Servatius is the patron saint of the city of Maastricht in the Netherlands, where he died in 384. His remains are kept in Maastricht’s Basilica of Saint Servatius in a gilded chest that is known as the “chest of distress” because it was traditionally carried around the city in times of woe. Citywide distress having become scarcer of late, the chest is now taken out for a procession once every seven years.

Many European countries have only three Ice Saints, but because Germany’s climate is especially punishing it goes on to a fourth and a fifth. On May 14, we have Boniface of Tarsus. Wer seine Schafe schert vor Bonifaz, dem ist die Woll’ lieber als das Schaf. Boniface, a fourth century martyr, was kicked off the Catholic saints calendar in 1969 for having probably not existed. According to legend at least, he was a Roman slave who was flung into a cauldron of boiling tar in Tarsus in 307. Death by boiling tar was the kind of thing medeival European art loved to depict; the picture above shows his martyrdom in a detail from an illustrated book of saints’ lives from Weissenau Abbey, ca. 1200. Don’t the flames in the pot kind of look like tentacles, as if a giant squid were being cooked in the pot alongside Boniface?

Last up is St. Sophia of Rome (May 15). Die kalte Sophie macht alles hie. Like Pancras and probably-fictional Boniface, Sophia was a Christian martyr during the reign of Emperor Diocletian; little is known about her life. She has the most nicknames of any Ice Saint: Cold Sophie in Germany and Poland, Sophia the Ice Woman in the Czech Republic, Pissing Sophie in Slovenia.

Meteorologically, there is something to the Ice Saints phenomenon: around May 11 an encounter between warmer air over the European continent and colder air over the Atlantic often makes Central European temperatures plummet for a few days, sometimes bringing night frosts. It’s not totally precise, though: this year Cold Sophie ditched out and May 15 was warm and sunny.

Maybe Sophie didn’t show up because she was sick of the nicknames. It would be kind of annoying to be an Eisheilige: to live such a holy life (or die such a gruesome martyr’s death) you make it into the pantheon of saints, then spend eternity having people complain about how your cold heart ruined their crops, just because your feast day happens to fall during some quirky meteorological micro-phenomenon. Although I guess if you’ve already been boiled alive in a cauldron of tar, it wouldn’t seem so bad in comparison.

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