Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Saints de Glace

I've just done a dreadful thing. I've shocked my neighbour to the core, and probably lost all my hard-won credibility as an honorary French woman. What, you wonder, have I done? I've planted out six tomato plants before the Saints de Glace.

As you probably know, every day in France (and most other European countries) is a saint's day; last Friday, for example, was St Boris (who clearly spent his day looking down fondly on a certain English politician. However, we won't go there just now ... suffice it to say that I shall be eternally grateful that I no longer live in London). Anyway, to get back to the Saints de Glace, farming people here have noticed for centuries that every year, between the 11th and 13th May, there is a cold spell. The farmers and wine makers offered prayers to the saints of three days, Saint Mamertus, Saint Pancras and Saint Servatuis, who became known collectively in France as the ‘Saints de Glace’. St Mamertus was archbishop of Vienna until his death in 475. He introduced the ‘Rogation days’, just before Ascension, to bring blessings on the crops. St Pancras is the patron saint of - no, not railway stations, but children. He was beheaded for his Christian beliefs at the age of 14 by the emperor Dioclétien. The last, St Servatuis, was Bishop of Tongres in Belgium before his death in 384.

Priests would lead processions round the fields, blessing winter crops and praying for good harvests. A secondary purpose was to bless the main boundary markers of each parish (a bit like like 'beating the bounds' in England), in towns as well as rural areas. A cross, relics, hand-bells, and banners were carried; those taking part were sometimes given a communal meal supplied from church funds, or received food at the houses they passed. There's evidence that the blessing of crops goes back to pre-Christian Roman times.

In the 1960s the Vatican decided that these practices were all too near-the-knuckle pagan and promptly changed the names of the Saint’s days to Saints Estelle, Achille and Rolande, who had no links to the old beliefs. It didn't work though; the Saints de Glace are still a fact of life here, the traditional practices remain, and anyone who plants out tender plants before the 13th May commands that famous slow shake of the head reserved only for the very foolish, and the English. To be fair, there is, it seems, a statistically higher than average incidence of a late frost around these dates. Astrologists reckon that it's because the earth travels through a cosmic dust cloud at this time, whereas meteorologists believe it has more to do with gulf streams and the change from winter to spring (in fact they point out that the phenomemon now occurs some three weeks earlier than previously, probably due to global climate change).

In mitigation, all I can say is that (a) it's hot; (b) the soil temperature has hit 22 degrees already; (c) I'm only a week early; (d) I've only planted out six plants - the rest are still covered and in their root trainers; (e) I've got my garden fleece at the ready; and (f) I won't do it again. Promise. But if the Saints de Glace are so minded, it could all end in tears.

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