New Englanders spend countless hours thinking about snow – analyzing it, predicting it, commenting on it. After all, New England gets a lot of the stuff. As the old saying goes, “In New England we have nine months of winter and three months of darned poor sledding.”
New England lore about snow is a mixture of practical observation and superstition. We gathered a few of the best.
What They Say About Snow
In 1896, Clifton Johnson of Hadley, Mass., collected New England proverbs in his book, What They Say in New England – A Book of Signs, Sayings and Superstitions.
Among them were superstitions and lore about winter, such as:
If the breast-bones of the Thanksgiving chickens are light in color, there will be a good deal of snow in the winter following. If the color is dark, there will be little snow.
The day of the month on which the first snowstorm comes gives the number of storms you can expect in the following winter.
If the snow on the roof melts off, the next storm will be rain. If it blows off, you can calculate on snow.
Snow that comes in the old of the moon is apt to last. Snow that comes in the new of the moon is apt to melt quickly.
If the ice on the trees melts and runs off, the next storm will be rain. If it is cracked off by the wind, the storm that comes next will be snow.
When it begins to snow, notice the size of the flakes. If they are very fine, the storm will be a long one; if large, the storm will soon be over.
A more modern folklorist, Peter Muise, offers these charming superstitions in his New England Folklore blog.
People in Winn, Maine, used to say that if you rub your hands with the first snow of winter you won’t have sore hands all season.
If you wish on the first snowflake of the season you’ll get your wish.
Some of the sayings have a scientific basis. For example, “Snowy winter, a plentiful harvest.” The snow is supposed to protect the roots of grass, vines, and trees, so that they put forth more vigorous growths the summer following. As the snow melts, it slowly releases nitrogen, the most important ingredient for plant growth. That’s why it’s called ‘poor man’s fertilizer.’
According to another belief, snow that melts late in the spring means an earlier snowfall in the autumn. In 1852, Isaac Stearns of Mansfield, Mass., decided to examine that assumption. He submitted his analysis to The New England Farmer. A few flakes fell on Oct. 15 — earlier than usual, commented some New Englanders. Stearns submitted the chart below:
He then informed New England Farmer readers that they correctly believed snows will come earlier in fall if they hold out late in the spring.
One ancient proverb that made its way to New England from the Old World involves Candlemas Day, a religious feast day celebrating the presentation of Christ in the temple. The proverb goes:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will take another flight;
If Candlemas Day be foul and rain,
Winter is gone and won’t come again.
Candlemas Day is usually celebrated on February 2. In today’s secular society it is better known as Groundhog Day.
This story was updated in 2022. If you enjoyed it, you may want to read about the Great Snow of 1717 here.