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St. Swithin’s Day: rain nae mair

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“St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain/For forty days it will remain/St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair/For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.”

Today’s column comes to you courtesy of Lisa Carr, the Watertown Daily Times librarian, who, in addition to introducing the pronunciation “nae mair” for “no more” to my vocabulary, unearthed, so to speak, an interesting meteorological artifact.

July 15 is St. Swithin’s Day, named for the restless slumber of a 10th century English bishop.

As you might have surmised from that little ditty above, legend has it that if it rains on St. Swithin’s Day, it will rain for the next 40 days, and if it is fair on St. Swithin’s Day, it will be fair for 40 days.

According to lore, when St. Swithin, Saxon bishop of Winchester, was on his deathbed, he asked to be buried out of doors where people could walk on him and where he could be rained upon.

For nine years, his wishes were honored, until the monks at the Winchester Cathedral attempted to move his remains to a shrine inside the cathedral on July 15, 971. A heavy rainstorm ensued.

The legend has survived for centuries, even gracing the pages of the Watertown Daily Times on several occasions, including on July 15, 1964, where it ran above a story about Watertown police escorting a band of gypsies to the city limits. Stories about St. Swithin’s Day also appeared on July 15, 1939, and July 15, 1914.

According to Mark Wysocki, senior lecturer at the Cornell University Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences who has studied weather folklore, the St. Swithin’s Day legend is just a story.

Measurable rain has been recorded in Watertown on July 15 for 22 of the last 64 years, Mr. Wysocki said, but there’s never been a recorded incidence in the area of rain continuing for 40 days straight.

When it comes to the days of the saints, of which there are several, take your meteorological menu with a grain of salt.

But there are some legends that ring true.

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.” Ever heard that one?

According to Mr. Wysocki, that saying actually is true because it was based on repeated and recorded observations by sailors who relied on weather predictions for their lives and livelihood.

According to the Library of Congress, a red sky at night means that the setting sun is sending its light through a concentration of dust particles, indicating high pressure and stable air coming in from the West. Good weather will follow.

A red sunrise, on the other hand, reflects the dust particles of a system that has just passed from the West, indicating that a storm system may be moving in.

It’s difficult to tell exactly why so much weather-related folklore has survived, but Mr. Wysocki surmised that it is because people grow frustrated with the science behind meteorology, which can sometimes fail in predicting the weather.

“Your science isn’t doing it; what difference does it make?” he said they may think.

But the alternative to the math, physics, data, observations and computer science can be just as inscrutable.

There are a whole host of weather-related saints’ days that run throughout the summer and fall, including St. Lawrence’s Day on the 10th of August, St. Matthew’s Day on the 21st of September, St. Michael’s Day on the 29th of September and St. Martin’s Day on the 11th of November.

Fair weather on St. Lawrence’s Day, which falls within 40 days of St. Swithin’s Day, indicates a fair autumn. A bright and clear day on the feast of St. Matthew is said to bring good food and wine for the rest of the year. Acorns on the ground on St. Michael’s Day predict snow for Christmas. A dry and cold St. Martin’s Day means a short winter.

“And if you don’t like it, you can talk to St. Martin,” Mr. Wysocki said.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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