Les Saints de Glace – Myth or Reality?

Chapelle de Notre Dame des Grâces, near Lacapelle Livron

Chapelle de Notre Dame des Grâces, near Lacapelle Livron

Qu’est-ce que vous voulez? C’est les Saints de Glace.” – “What do you expect? It’s the ice saints at the moment.” This is invariably the reaction of French people around here if you complain about the weather around mid-May. The 11th, 12th and 13th May commemorate respectively Saint Mamert, Saint Pancrace and Saint Servais, known collectively as the Saints de Glace.

Traditionally, people expect the weather to be cold and even for it to freeze at night on those dates. After 13th May, they consider it safe to sow and plant. In colder and more mountainous parts of France, 26th May is the limit. Saint Mamert, Archbishop of Vienne in the 5th century, introduced three days of prayer (Rogations) just before Ascension Day to ward off natural calamities. Priests blessed the fields and farmers later invoked the three saints to protect their crops from the ravages of frost.

The Saints de Glace have given rise to all sorts of rhymes and dictons (sayings), including:

Saint Servais, Saint Pancrace et Saint Mamert font à trois un petit hiver” Saints Servais, Pancrace and Mamert together make a little winter.

But does this belief have any foundation in reality? We are slap in the middle of the Saints de Glace today and I can confirm that the past two days have been chilly, windy and grey with the odd spot of rain. We had a picnic last Wednesday outside the chapel pictured above: that wouldn’t have been possible this weekend. This, of course, doesn’t constitute proof of a mini Ice Age every May so I looked a little further.

According to various sources, Europe experienced a wave of cold in May roughly once every two years, starting from about the second millennium. Astronomers later explained this as the result of the Earth passing through a dust belt at that period of the year. This partly obstructed the sun’s rays and caused a noticeable drop in temperature. Today, the passage through the dust belt appears to occur earlier in the year, so that is no longer an explanation.

However, certain meteorological phenomena, which I won’t attempt to explain, can combine in May to lower the temperature. So the legend of the Saints de Glace is not quite as folkloric as it appears. And it looks as if we can expect cool and unsettled weather for most of this month. So all those who have landed on my blog recently, having Googled, “Why is the weather in France so bad in 2013?”, will have to wait a bit longer for any respite.

The same day as the picnic, I took this shot of la cascade pétrifiée near Caylus. It often runs dry but showed no sign of doing so yet, owing to all the rain we’ve had.

Petrified waterfall near Caylus

Petrified waterfall near Caylus

While I’m writing about weather, it appears that my blog has achieved international renown among forecasters – but not for our stats. I was curious to see why people had come to my blog from the website of an international congress on weather forecasting, to take place in Toulouse this week. In their delegate information, I noticed that they provided a link to a post I wrote about Montauban a couple of years ago. The town rivals Toulouse (the pink city) for its red/pink brick buildings. Much appreciated, but I’d have tidied up that post a bit if I’d known…

Copyright © 2013 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

About nessafrance

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.
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11 Responses to Les Saints de Glace – Myth or Reality?

  1. Pingback: Monthly Météo: SW France Weather May 2013 | Life on La Lune

  2. Sue Whatmough says:

    Well, we’ve certainly had Les Saints de Glace here. It’s been really chilly – back to long-johns time. We were told May could be wet and windy when we first arrived, but I don’t remember anyone saying it could be cold too. Brrrr! Roll on June – let’s hope it’s flaming.


    • nessafrance says:

      Yet again, I doubt if we will swim in May. This seems to be the pattern in recent years – colder, wetter spring and early summer followed by a radiant autumn.


  3. Kate Swaffer says:

    Gorgeous photos Vanessa and as always, a lovely trip to France for me! And congratulations on the international weather forecasting hat!


  4. That’s so interesting, and I think the waterfall photo is so pretty.


    • nessafrance says:

      It’s a lovely waterfall and flows very fast this year. In recent years, because of persistent drought, we have seen it completely dry. The limestone-charged water has, over the years, resulted in the ribbed rock formation behind the waterfall – hence its name, Pétrifiée.


  5. Evelyn says:

    I’ve been complaining about the weather since…geez, I don’t know…maybe last summer! Is there a saint for that?? Nice photo of that pretty chapel and also the waterfall. It may be running all summer at the rate we’re going.


    • nessafrance says:

      I think all the saints have gone elsewhere this year – except for those that herald bad weather! I suspect the cascade will keep going until about mid-June, which is normally when the weather improves radically – fingers crossed…


  6. Stephanie says:

    We’ve had the fire going a few hours today and yesterday. May often does get chilly and a lot of the dictons have an element of truth in them. I have great faith in old rural wisdom. We’ve been watching the garden of an elderly man in the village and he’s planted next to nothing so far this year so I’ll be waiting for the ice saints to depart and then wait a bit longer before putting out the delicate plants.


    • nessafrance says:

      We’ve also had the fire going and the central heating at times this weekend. I suspect your elderly neighbour knows exactly what he’s doing, so you can’t go far wrong if you follow what he does!


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