Saturday, July 15, 2017

Still Life with Robin: Happy St. Swithin's Day!

Winchester Cathedral
Photo by Gary Ullah, UK, via Creative Commons
by Peggy Robin

Last week in this space I bid you all a happy Quatorze Juillet. I figured, better to get that greeting out six days early and leave my July 15 column free for its purpose - St. Swithin’s Day! Never heard of it? Neither have a lot of English people, even though it’s a quintessentially English thing. It’s less about the saint, and more about the weather….meaning, will it rain?

Here’s the little poem you recite on St. Swithin’s Day:

St. Swithin’s Day, if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s Day, if it be fair
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mair

You might suppose, given the spelling of “no more” as “nae mair,” that the origin of the holiday is Scottish, but all googling roads point to Winchester, England, and a story about its archbishop, who died in 862 A.D. At his request he was buried in a sunny spot in the churchyard at Winchester.  Nine years later, on July 15, 971, his remains were disinterred and moved into a magnificent new shrine built for him within Winchester Cathedral.  Legend has it that it began to pour during the ceremony and the torrential rains kept up for forty days. It’s not known who first wrote down the rhyme but it has appeared in Mother Goose collections dating as far back as 1599.

It seems St. Swithin lives on as a kind of a groundhog-like prognosticator of the weather for the English summer (but without a movie to his name or a good PR machine). And, unlike the groundhog, who has really does have a pretty good shot at being right about the coming of spring (see http://www.pennlive.com/life/2017/01/how_often_punxsutawney_phil_right.html), St. Swithin’s batting average is a big fat goose egg. According to Britain’s Royal Meteorological Society, St. Swithin’s Day has NEVER been followed by forty straight days of rain OR forty days of drought (see: https://www.rmets.org/weather-and-climate/weather/st-swithins-day).

Maybe the problem with St. Swithin is that he’s not actually there in the Cathedral to do the job. Sometime during the reign of Henry VIII, as England broke away from the Catholic Church, the great cathedrals were looted, their treasures expropriated, and the relics destroyed. St. Swithin’s crypt was among the casualties. No one knows what happened to his bones. You know how people say they can “feel the weather in their bones”? Poor St. Swithin can hardly be expected to “feel the weather” for us if he no longer has his bones!

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Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays. 

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