St Matthew’s Day

If Matthew finds ice, he breaks it.
If he doesn’t break it, he makes it all the harder.
St Matthias with his ice breaker…

If there is sharp frost on Matthew’s Day, it will last till March.

The fox is hesitant to walk on ice after St Matthias has passed.

Matthias breaks winter’s back.

Sap begins to run on St Matthew’s Day.

February 24th is St Matthew’s day. This is an old weather marker, carried over from East Anglia with the colonists. The end of February is the end of the year in traditional European calendars. March 1st brings in the new year and the new spring, which for much of the world is the same thing. So there is a certain amount of predicting the given in February’s weather markers — from Candlemas asserting that we have six more weeks of winter weather to birds bring the sun from the south on Valentine’s Day to Matthew breaking winter’s back. On average, these predictions will be correct because our calendars are fairly good at keeping time with the seasonal cycle and because weather follows patterns… mostly… and the main driver of spring warmth, increasing day length, is constant from year to year. On St Matthew’s day, in this part of the world, there are eleven hours of sunlight to beat down on the ice.

What I find interesting is that these predictions for the north of Europe generally work in New England. Weather folklore reveals just how close New England is to Old England. Though it’s an ocean away and quite a bit south of the White Cliffs of Dover, the timing of weather is very similar. However, we experience more extremes on the west side of the Atlantic; it is much colder and snowier here and the swing from winter to summer is more drastic. Still, it is generally true that the end of February is the end of the worst of winter. As the old saws quoted above declare, though there may still be ice, it’s unwise to trust its strength as we head into March.

The timing of weather is changing these days. Spring weather seems to be creeping further and further back into winter, though the transformation is not that spring is coming earlier as much as summer is lasting later. The days may still see the same dwindling sunlight hours heading into winter, but there is so much heat in summer now it takes months to shed it. Around here, as long as the polar vortex remains strong and keeps all the arctic air confined at the top of the world, it’s not unusual to spend the winter holidays in shirt sleeves. But the trees are all bare, because they are counting the daylight hours and ignoring the weather.

In any case, winter is not getting as cold as it once did, and it takes much less time and energy to reheat the hemisphere back to balmy summer. This is one of the main problems with climate change. Many woody plants and some perennials count hours of sunlight (or hours of darkness) and are on the same old calendar. But their mobile partners in pollination — bugs and birds and the weather itself in the form of wind — are following new schedules. There is an asynchrony in the dance of life. Some migratory birds show up weeks before their food sources are breaking dormancy. Insects that spent winter bedded down locally may wake in a string of warm February days, long before there are blossoms. But then winter cold will settle back in, killing the hungry and exposed bugs. Some plants also take cues from the weather and not from the time. Like the insects, the buds and shoots that are drawn out by unseasonable warmth are blighted when more typical weather returns.

There isn’t much to be done about any of this, though putting out bird food — especially the high calorie meal worms that best match normal spring fare — is a good idea. But I think part of being aware of the climate changes we’ve created is bearing witness. Keep records. Learn the new patterns — if there are any. Because the challenge we will be facing for decades to come is a seeming lack of pattern, and we humans don’t do well in random time. So watch for the changes and hang them on the old patterns. Because there will still be eleven hours of daylight on St Matthew’s Day where I live. There will be that underlying continuity even in the chaos.

Our ancestors noted the patterns and made calendars and weather lore so that we would not feel adrift in time, so that we could be embedded in our places, so that we could go about our lives, relying on the steady recurrence of planting season and harvest and snow in deep winter. Their calendars still mostly work. Sap will begin running soon if it hasn’t already darkened the bark of maple trees. But in this time of change, someone has to carry out recalibration. This tuning up the calendars is the work of those who pay attention to this Earth.

This year Matthew might be running right on old time. The polar vortex has been draped all over this part of the world since January, so we’ve had weeks of ridiculous cold and deep snow. No early spring this year. But now we seem to be settling into a rolling cycle of snow melting into rain followed by hard freezes. On balance the warmth is winning… the ice is certainly thinning. There is exposed grass in the garden. And I’ve already heard the cardinals calling out territorial challenges in the dark before dawn. I’m sure there will be snow for weeks to come. But I’m also fairly certain there will be maple syrup soon. In any case, I’ll be noting it in my journal and comparing the days to come to days past. It’s what I do to fine tune my time.

What does St Matthew bring to your part of the world? Notice the details of the day where you live. Write it down. Compare it to the old calendars… and then draw up new ones if need be. Someday someone will appreciate what reliable continuity you’ve managed to cull from the flux.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022