Eisheiligen in Germany – The German Ice Saints of May

There’s a good reason why all Germans carry an Allwetterjacke (all weather jacket), German weather can fool you. One moment you bask under a warm sun in the local Biergarten, and the next you need to pull on your sweater. Especially in May, when after a long Winter of cold dreary weather everyone seeks the sun. But, just because the sun is shining, farmers, hobby gardeners, and my Oma all know… No planting until AFTER the Eisheiligen days pass! Those German Ice Saints of May have nothing at all to do with Ice Cream. Instead they bring a last blast of cold air that kill young plants overnight, even when the days felt warm. Who are the Eisheiligen in Germany? And where did these rules come from? These 5 days of May get their name from the 5 Saints days that fall from May 11 until the 15th. The Bauernregeln (Farmer’s Rules/Expressions) remind everyone that although the sun is shining… cold is still in the air.

“Vor Bonifaz kein Sommer, nach Sophie kein Frost”
Before Boniface no summer, after Sophie no frost

Eisheiligen in Germany

Sometime during the Middle Ages, Bauernregeln about mid-May planting circulated. Bauernregeln (Farmer’s Rules) covered all aspects of farming. When to plant, when to harvest, how to determine coming weather patterns. Think of them as an oral Farmers Almanac.(Groundhog’s Day arrived in the United States with German immigrants who looked to see how much longer Winter would last after Maria Lichtmess, February 2nd). The Eisheiligen of Mid-May were nights that would likely freeze, despite daytime warmth. Waiting until after these five days (or three days in the Southern regions) to plant crops and garden vegetables insured a your harvest wouldn’t be lost to frost before it had a chance to establish.

But WHY not just say… “Don’t plant before May 11”? Once upon a time, the church organized the calendar by giving every Saint a specific day (by their birth or death). Your average person didn’t have a calendar hanging on the refrigerator, and Saints names had more personal meaning. (Keep in mind, the Catholic Church held a great deal of power, and there weren’t yet Protestant churches or other Christian groups that might have a different idea about venerating Saints and Martyrs.) This explains why New Year’s Eve and Silvester in Germany are interchangeable, Pope Silvester  died on December 31, and it’s his Saint’s day.

Of course, when the Julien Calendar shifted to the Gregorian Calendar, everything got shifted by 13 days, throwing the Saint’s days into confusion. Theoretically, the date shift meant that the Eisheilgen days were off by over a week. But since everyone already memorized the rules, the farmers collectively agreed to just leave it alone. Adding to the drama, in 1969 Bonifatius’s story came into question, and he lost his place in the calendar of saints. Nevermind. We still count him as an Eisheiligen.

“Pankrazi, Servazi und Bonifazi sind drei frostige Bazi. Und zum Schluss fehlt nie die Kalte Sophie.”
Pangraz, Servaz und Bonifaz are the three icy Bazi. And in the end Cold Sophie will never be missing

Santi di ghiaccio

The Five Eisheiligen or Ice Saints

The four men and one woman who make up the Eisheiligen are an interesting group. Northern German Catholics count Mamertus as the first Ice Saint, in the South they begin with Pankratius. Cold Sophie appears on the lists much later, and gives the group a firm end date.

It’s interesting that a few of these Saints are Patron Saint of frost, disaster, and plants. Almost as if it was pre-planned….

Ice Saints

St Mamertus- May 11

Mamerz hat ein kaltes Herz”
Mamerz has a cold heart

Born around 400, Mamertus later became the Archbishop of Vienne Gaul before he died in 477. During his life he created many parts of liturgy for the Church.
Mamertus rescued his district from famine and disaster with a miracle, so he is considered the Saint of Earthquakes and other disasters. (You also call on him for Chest Diseases and Fever)

Pankratius- May 12

Wenn’s an Pankratz friert, wird im Garten viel ruiniert”
When Pankratz freezes, a lot of the garden is ruined

Joachim Köhler, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pankratuis was born to a wealthy family in Phrygia (Turkey). After going to Rome, he felt sorry for persecuted Christians, so he tried to help them, and ultimately converted. For this he was beheaded and fed to dogs.
He is the patron saint of young seeds and blossoms. Because of his wealth, his statutes usually show him in fine clothing.

St Servatius- May 13

Servaz muß vorbei sein, willst von Nachtfrost sicher sein
Servaz must have passed, if you want to be safe from night frost”

Blokboek StServaas02
Unknown artist, 15th century, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Born in 340, Servatius was thought to be a cousin (a few hundred years removed) from John the Baptist, and therefore a member of the Holy Family. When he foresaw the Hun invasion of Rome, he moved to Tongren on the Baltic Coast of Gaul where he became Archbishop (this area was inhabited by the first people that Tacitus labeled “Germani”). You will easily recognize statues of Servatius, because he always holds wooden shoes. Legend says that he was killed BY a wooden shoe! (I’ve worn them, they are uncomfortable)
Servatius is the patron saint of Frost Damage (makes sense for an Eisheiligen), foot problems (makes sense for a guy killed by a shoe), rheumatism, and plagues of rats.

Bonifatius- May 14

Vor Boniface kein Sommer, nach Sophie kein frost
No Summer before Boniface, no frost after Sophie
Codex Bodmer 127 071r Detail
Martyrdom of St Bonifatius, either an unknown master or „Frater Rufillus“, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Bonifatius was born around 306 CE in Rome, and he didn’t start out as a Christian, he started as a Relic Hunter! (Think Toga wearing Indiana Jones!). After seeing how the Romans persecuted Christians, he converted, and ended up being a very early Martyr. (The Romans boiled him in tar). Sadly, the name Boniface wasn’t uncommon, and no one quite knew if the story about him was true (or if it was another Boniface?)… so the Church took him off the saint’s list.
All imagery of Boniface/Bonifatius shows a man being showered in bad luck.

Sophie- May 15

Vor Nachtfrost du nie sicher bist, bis Sophie vorüber ist
You are never safe from night frost until Sophie passed by
St. Sophia of Rome died in 304, an early Virgin Martyr under Diocletian. She’s known as Cold Sophie or even Pissing Sophie (because of rain). People do confuse her with the many other Sophies, including St Sophia of Milan, Galatia, or Minden… Her relics are in the Alsace, and she’s better known in Germany as an Ice Saint than in Rome.
Sophie is invoked against late frosts.

Is weather REALLY Colder until After the Eisheiligen?

Mamertius, Pankratius, Servatius bringen oft Kälte und Verdruss
Mamertus, Pankratius, Servatius often bring cold and annoyance
Students of Galileo conducted a lengthy study of the world around them, and determined that YES. Cold snaps appeared during these 5 days. And weather records from the 19th and 20th century do show cold periods during that time in May. Although it’s not scientifically proven, modern Meteorologists point out that there really is something to it. Right around the time of the Eisheiligen, changing seasons causes cold polar air to flow south to the Alps. So yes, it’s entirely possible that the Eisheiligen bring with them one last blast of cold to Central Europe.

True of not, if you live in Germany, it probably wouldn’t hurt to wait another day to set out seedlings. How about the feast day for St Honoratus, the patron Saint of Bakers? His relics are used to promote good wheat harvest… so it’s a perfect day to plant!

8 thoughts on “Eisheiligen in Germany – The German Ice Saints of May

  1. My mother was a Protestant, born and bred. the Roman Catholic saints were all so much Qwatsch for her. She would acknowledge that they were probably good people, but she was not going to eat fish on a certain day just because the church had assigned that day to them. The one exception she made was for the Eisheiligen. She didn’t know exactly which days were set aside for them but when we had a cold day in the middle of May she would say conspiratorialy, “It’s the Eisheligan!”

  2. My Oma, born 1900, self sufficient farmers for uncountable generations. used to say the Church reinvented the Eisheligen, they were from a much older time. Interestingly here in Canada no one would ever plant a garden before “May 24” a Canadian holiday on Monday (and it’s called that regardless if it’s the 22nd or 23rd etc)

    1. Interesting… wondering if that’s tied to the Calendar change?

  3. Thank you very much for the article regarding no laundry between Christmas and epiphany! My Oma told me that when I was very young. No one else in my family remembered that superstition so I was so pleased to read your article. I will send it to my sister (who assumed I either made it up or misunderstood) .

  4. Thanks for the Eisheiligen information! Back home in Michigan my folks waited until Memorial Day, end of May to plant. Also it was a 3-day weekend so good timing for garden planting.

    1. Here in California we can usually start earlier… although this Spring is SLOOOOOWWWW in coming.

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