My mother used to joke that her father-in-law (my grandfather) always talked about the weather. I guess the weather was always strange in Florida: too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry. An old saying: “Don’t knock the weather, 90% of the people couldn’t start a conversation if it didn’t change occasionally.” My grandfather included.
So, just to prove that I’m related to my grandfather, I’m going to talk Swiss weather. In my “Abc collection – W” under weather, I already mentioned the “Bise” and the “Foern”. The two big winds from the north and south.
Knowing what the weather would be, has always been important, especially for farmers. The German speaking communities had their “Farmer’s proverbs” or rhyming proverbs. Before meteorologists and satellites abounded, observation was the only way to go. These were usually passed on from generation to generation.
Some of them seem just silly but quite a few are correct and reliable. One of the ones my husband likes to say is: “when the rooster crows on the manure heap, the weather will either change or stay the same.” I suppose that is to show how silly these proverbs are. But taking a closer looks at some of the proverbs shows just the opposite.
Proverbs by months
Quite often the proverbs are organized by months. What to expect in each month.
“It’s better to freeze in February than walk in the sunshine.” [“Besser im Hornung frieren als in der Sonn spazieren.“]
“March fog will bring rain in 100 days.” [“Märzennebel, in 100 Tagen Regen bringen.“]
When Ben’s uncle gave us his car he said he takes the winter tires off in May. I thought May was awfully late for winter tires, now I wonder if he was familiar with this proverb? “The winter is over in the middle of May.” [“Erst Mitte Mai ist der Winter vorbei.“]
Ben’s mother quite frequently commented on the sparrows, when they flew high the weather was going to be good. Low flying sparrows, not good. She was usually right, too. Of course, there is a proverb for this. “If you see the sparrows fly low, it will rain. If they are flying high then the coming weather will be nice.” [“Siehst du die Schwalben niedrig fliegen, wirst du Regenwetter kriegen. Fliegen die Schwalben in den Höh’n, kommt ein Wetter, das ist schön.”]
Okay, what do sparrows know that we don’t? They know that they have to fly at the height of their meals – insects, to catch them. It’s the high and low pressures that push the insects around. And, quite honestly, it’s easier to spot a sparrow flying low or high than an insect.
Well, what do you know, here I thought Ben’s mom was a born meteorologist and she was just wise to rhyming proverbs.
The Ice Saints [Eisheilige]
Often a day or group of days will have a special meaning in the name of weather. And, yes, they really do pop up in conversations.
The Ice Saints are 5 days in May and are a cold and frosty spring weather phenomena. The days are named after the following Saints: Mamertus, Pancratius, Servatius, Bonifatius and Sophie. Personally I have only heard of people talk about the “Cold Sophie” and the Ice Saints. The dates differ by region because the colder winds take a couple of days to move across a continent. Cold Sophie is on Monday, May 15th in 2017.
The ”farmer’s proverbs” state that you shouldn’t plant anything before the “Cold Sophie”. This is because you can never be sure if there will be a night frost. My mother-in-law never put her geraniums out before the “Cold Sophie”. I try to put my geraniums and seedlings out after this date, too. If you don’t and they die in a frost everyone will just shake their heads with that “I told you” look. “How could you even think of putting them out before the ‘Cold Sophie’ had passed.”
Sheep’s Cold [Schafkälte]
These are the cold and rainy days in the first half of June. The name is derived from the shivering shorn sheep. Brrr.
Dormouse days [Siebenschläfertag]
I had never heard of this rodent before I came to Switzerland. After I looked it up, I knew why. Dormice are mostly found in Europe. The legend has it that the weather for the following 7 weeks are predicted on June 27th. The legend dates back to 251 A.D and has to do with Christian persecution. I assume that because the prosecuted “slept” for 196 years it was referenced to the hibernation habits of the dormouse.
Nowadays it applies to the last week of June and the first in July. I guess similar to Groundhog day in the States. The weather is predicted to stay the way it is; if it is unstable it will stay unstable. If it is warm, it will stay warm. Someone analyzed the data to see if it was true or not. They came up with a 50 – 70% of it being correct. If you ask me, that sounds sort of like the chances when tossing a coin.
Dog days [Hundstage]
These are the 4 weeks from July 23rd to August 23rd. This is what good weather is called then. It does not refer to the animal but describes the brightest star in the astrological constellation Canis Major (Greater Dog).
Old Woman Summer [Altweibersommer]
The “Old Woman Summer” is in the beginning of the fall (end of October and beginning of November). It is basically the same as Indian Summer; a spot of warm weather in mid-October. I always assumed that it was called “old woman summer” because of the easy association between “old women” liking nice warm weather. Actually it has nothing to do with women.
Like any language, German has also evolved. The term “Altweibersommer” goes way back so it stands to reason that the words were used differently then. The old German word “weiben” doesn’t mean “woman” like it does today. It meant to weave and has a connection with spider webs. “Alt” didn’t mean “old” but “late”. At least “Sommer” does mean summer. So, put it all together and what do you get? Spider webs that shimmer in the warm, late fall.
50% chance of rain, 100% chance of misunderstanding
Speaking of weather, one of the things I noticed when I came to Switzerland was how the weather was presented on TV. In the States there was always talk of what the chance of rain would be. So it might sound something like: “On the Eastern Shore there is a 60% chance of rain.” Sounds like it’s time to get out your rain-gear.
I have never heard anything like that on the Swiss TV. I always thought it was about how the Americans love chances and probabilities. As it turns out it’s good that they don’t present the weather in that fashion here. It’s a little more complicated than that.
For example, the meteorologist is 50% sure that there will be rain in 80% of the area. That would make the chance of rain in that whole area stated as 40% of rain (area x chance, 80x.5=40 . Of course, if the forecaster is 75% sure that rain will fall in a third of the area, the chance of rain for the whole area would be 25%. Which will make no one happy because the people who get wet will say, 25%? Were they reading tea leaves, again?
Thanks Switzerland for saving me the headache of trying to figure out what is actually meant by percent of precipitation. I think I’ll just stick to saying, “An uncommon amount of rain lately, eh?” Then I’ll smile, and think of my Grandpa.