“Iss auf. Sonst regnet es morgen.” German kids know this sentence when growing up: Empty your plate, or it will rain the next day. Quite a few of my German friends, visiting Manchester, used this traditional rule to mock English weather as well as cuisine. “This food is so bad”, they claimed, “no wonder it keeps raining here.” Looking out of my window right now, the weather isn’t as bad as the stereotype (and the constant moaning of the English) suggests. But then again, the food isn’t that horrible either. And you can always choose a curry anyway.
Weather, however, you can’t choose. There is a point to be made that our behaviour might influence the climate of the planet, and thus also the weather at some point, but when it comes to changing the situation outside right now, neither a rain dance nor emptying your plate will really help.
Weather lore nevertheless is much more than just superstition. Germany has a whole collection of handy rules, often rhymed, that help to predict the weather or at least wider weather phenomena. These “Bauernregeln” (farmer’s rules), published as a book by a now unknown author in the 16th century, have been tested by modern-day meterologists like the German celebrity “weatherman” Jörg Kachelmann – who found that they are surprisingly often right.
How is that possible? Predicting the weather is a matter of statistics and propabilities. The experience of farmers and people living in rural surroundings, collected over decades and centuries, is simply as good as any empirical science, if a little less precise. And it is absolutely not only farmers who rely on this traditional wisdom. While I grew up, my mom would quote sayings like “Ist bis Dreikönigstag kein Winter, so kommt auch keiner mehr dahinter” (If there’s no real winter until Epiphany, there won’t be any afterwards either) or that the “Ice Saints” in May will bring a reminder of winter with cold nights and frost. “The cold Sophie”, she said, “is the day after which you can start planting flowers.” Saint Sophie is a Roman Martyr whose day in the Catholic calendar is May 15th.
The stars predict the weather
I doubt my mom ever believed in any of these things, but to this day these books are available in her bathroom as entertainment for whoever visits. My favourite among these: The yearly new edition of the “Hundertjähriger Kalender”, the One Hundred Year calendar. Pretty much everything about this weather prediction handbook is wrong.
The original work by inventor Mauritius Knauer was published in 1652 as an astrological work, assuming that the position of the planets influenced the weather. Knauer himself was the abbot of a monastery that heavily relied on agriculture to survive, and predicting rain and drought was very important. He assumed that weather repeats every 7 years, depending on the movement of the luminaries in the sky. The doctor Christoph von Hellwig simplified this theory in 1702, broke it down to a time frame of one hundred years and published it successfully under the title we know today. A whole publishing industry grew around this calendar, with yearly handbooks for believers or those who just like the cosy tradition of folklore.
But even in this astrological approach German weathermen have found statistical proof that it is not all wrong. The “Hundstage” (dog days) between July 23rd and August 23rd are indeed the hottest days of the year. The name is of ancient Roman descent and relates to the visibility of the star Sirius, part of the sign of the Canis Major, the “Great Dog”. German school holidays correlate with the dog days, although not strictly, as all 16 states have different holiday dates.
Shortly before this hottest time of the year, in the beginning of June, farmers in Germany expect the “Schafskälte” (sheep cold) – when the sheep sheering has already happened, and a few cold nights leave the poor animals to freeze. Between Schafskälte and Hundstage it’s time for the Siebenschläfertag on June 27th. The Seven Sleepers’ Day goes back to an old legend, popularized by Gregory of Tours, influential historian of the 6th century. The Seven Sleepers are a Catholic myth that also made its way into the Quran. The legend itself, telling of seven men who were locked in a cave and slept for hundreds of years to be woken up and tell of Jesus’ life as first hand witnesses, isn’t particularly important for the weather. The date, however, has inspired a Bauernregel: Wie das Wetter am Siebenschläfer sich verhält, ist es sieben Wochen lang bestellt. Wenn’s am Siebenschläfer regnet, sind wir sieben Wochen mit Regen gesegnet. Wie’s Wetter am Siebenschläfertag, so der Juli werden mag. Without translating all these handy rhymes, its message is simply: The weather on June 27th is likely to hold up for seven weeks. Statistics proof that this is true in around 70 % of the years in South Germany, but the rule is a complete failure in the oceanic climate of North Germany.
The Siebenschläfer-myth, however, inspired a great piece of American cineatic art. If you haven’t watched Groundhog Day yet, you really should – a little furry animal is said to predict the weather in this movie comedy, and guess what this animal is called in German? Right: A Siebenschläfer, since it likes to hibernate for seven months.
Weather and language
No article about weather could be complete without mentioning this phenomenon well known to English people. Weather is a communication tool like none else. Typical small talk starts with “Isn’t the sunshine lovely today?”. A safe place to go in conversation, unless it is actually pouring down, which would make you appear a little weird.
A less friendly conversation starter is the term “Du machst ein Gesicht wie hundert Tage Regenwetter” – your face looks like a hundred days of rain – which suggests a gloomy attitude or sadness. When someone smiles, Germans will mention that “the sun just rose” or “the clouds went away”.
A saying that is common in England but would never work in Germany is “Sun’s out, guns out.” Honestly, refering to male muscles at “guns” is a weird idea for Germans, as is the idea that men have to drop their clothes as soon as the weather gets a bit warmer. Not that Germans don’t also enjoy reduced clothing in summer – after all, Germany is the country of FKK, the Freikörperkultur, where whole communities go naked – but it surely isn’t a war cry.