Meet the 4 Great Ice Saints of May
What do Sts. Mamertus, Pancras, Servatius and Boniface of Tarsus have to do with the tomatoes you’re planting this year?
Ever heard of the Ice Saints? Their name provokes many thoughts for Catholics and others throughout the world for their attachment to weather phenomena, scientific discovery and general folklore.
The Ice Saints are early saints whose respective feasts on the pre-1969 calendar fall three days in a row in mid-May. Although the Ice Saints occupy three days on the calendar, the trio are actually composed of four saints — two saints vary depending on the tradition of the country or region. They are St. Mamertus (May 11), St. Pancras (May 12), St. Servatius (May 13) and St. Boniface of Tarsus (May 14). The inclusion of Sts. Mamertus and Boniface of Tarsus varies from tradition to tradition.
What’s so icy about May? Folks from Florida might not understand this, but in many northern regions, mid-May is understood as having the final days with temperatures below freezing. The passing of this final “cold snap” usually marks when the time is right to plant seeds without fear of freezing. I can confirm this, since growing up in Arizona I did not at first understand why later in life my Midwestern neighbors would tell me not to plant until after Mother’s Day (May 8) or even Memorial Day.
So that’s the general folklore, but the saints of course led lives worth imitating, and they give us some fun stories as well. Might they have anything to do with ice, snow or cold weather, too?
St. Mamertus (d. 475) was the bishop of Vienne in Gaul. He is renowned for introducing the rogation days, three days of special psalms and processions before the Ascension. St. Pancras (d. 304) was beheaded for his faith at the young age of 14 by Emperor Diocletian. St. Servatius (d. 384) was bishop of Tongres, or Tongeren, in modern day Belgium, who gave refuge to St. Athanasius when he was banished after the Council of Sardica, and prophesied the invasion of the Huns in Gaul. St. Boniface of Tarsus (d. 306) lived in Rome and was a steward to Aglaë, a woman of great renown (who also became a saint). She sent him to the East to return with relics of saints, and he found himself arriving at Tarsus in the middle of a persecution. Despite this, he preached to the governor, who soon had him tortured and boiled — which he miraculously survived — and finally beheaded.
These heroic saints have little to do with ice or snow or cold weather. It just happens that their traditional feasts landed in the middle part of May. Early scientists noted this, including Galileo, whose pupils from 1655 to 1670 consistently recorded the final cold snap of the winter in the middle of May. That these studied observers would associate the phenomena with the days of the saints is a remarkable fact that shows just how influential the Church calendar was back then, even on the minds of scientists studying the climate.
The Ice Saints are a fun study. Either way, the next time it’s late in the spring (or Ascension Sunday) and you’re worried that your plants might freeze overnight, remember these saint-friends who can intercede for you. (Oh, and can we get those rogation days back on the calendar?)