Come the Three Icemen of May

We are, here in the Chicago area, in the heart of the three May Icemen. After a bitter day we’ve a frost alert–the tomatoes will die tonight, if they’ve been put out without protection. (They might die even with black plastic, but they’ve a slightly better chance with it than without.) They’ve always been part of my life, the Three May Icemen–I am, after all, a Midwesterner born and bred–but, until today, I’d never actually realized that they were more than an expression that I’d heard from my parents, and my grandparents (both sets) and my relations from Wisconsin.

The Three May Icemen are, evidently, saints of long ago, whose feast days bounce in a line, from May 11th through May 13th, or 15th. According to Chicago’s own Tom Skilling, the saintly ice dudes are generally MamertusPancras (yeah, like that super-cool train station in London), and Servatius, although Boniface sometimes joins their number, as does Sophia, whose feast day sometimes heralds the planting season. Regardless of which dudes join in the fun, however, the days are more or less the same: roughly May 11th through the 13th, though the 14th and 15th (Saint Sophia’s day) can join in as well. Thus, we are this year quite in the midst of our Icemen–both metaphorically, as Sophia’s day will roll round in less than an hour, and literally, as we’re awaiting that ostensibly late-season frost.

If you don’t like the weather in Wisconsin, my grandma used to say, wait five minutes, and it’ll be something different–a saying which, of course, I’ve also heard here in Illinois. (According to the renowned pollster Five Thirty Eight, which has of course looked into this important factoid, Chicago isn’t even in the top ten unpredictable weather cities, which is probably just as well. Thank you Lake Michigan!) But I don’t think I’d categorize our cold May days as unpredictable, exactly: after all, they’ve been guiding the planting season in western Europe since auld lange syne, came over to the U.S. fairly early, and continued to guide plenty of hands here.

Certainly it’s been a part of my family lore. Never plant before the three May Icemen have come and gone, they’ve all of them said: keep your tomatoes safe. And certainly I’ve reminded folks that spring is always a violent season, prone to wild weather swings; I’ve even referenced the Three May Icemen, though I thought that they were nothing more than three particularly cold days, after which one trundled out to the garden and got the tomatoes in. But the three Icemen are come, this year, which means spring is well and truly here, almost to the tipping into summer: and once they’ve gone, it’ll be time to plant.