St. Swithin's Day


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St. Swithin's Day

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: July 15
Where Celebrated: British Isles, United States
Symbols and Customs: Rain

ORIGINS

The humble monk known as Swithin (or Swithun) was chosen by King Egbert of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex to tutor his son, Ethelwulf. When Ethelwulf succeeded his father in 839, he chose Swithin as bishop of Winchester, the capital of Wessex. When Swithin died in 862, he left instructions that he was to be buried outside in the churchyard-not inside the cathedral, as most bishops were- because he hated any kind of ostentation or show and wanted the money that his monks were going to spend on a mausoleum to be spent helping the poor instead. He chose as his gravesite a place where rain from the church eaves poured down and saturated the earth. It was taken as a sign of St. Swithin's humility that he chose this wet and undesirable area.

A hundred years passed, and a number of healing miracles were reported by those who visited St. Swithin's grave. Eventually the church authorities decided it wasn't right to have such a great man buried anywhere except under the altar, so they made arrangements to move St. Swithin's bones. As the solemn procession started out, however, there was such an intense storm that the event had to be postponed. The RAIN continued for forty days, causing widespread flooding, and the church authorities began to get the idea that St. Swithin didn't want to be moved. So they called the whole thing off, and the rain immediately stopped.

The only problem with this story is that it isn't true. St. Swithin's bones were moved to Winchester Cathedral without incident on July 15, 971-a sunny day. But his legend, which spread from medieval England into Ireland, has made predictions concerning the weather the most enduring part of his feast day.

The basis of saint day remembrances-for St. Swithin and other saints-is found in ancient Roman tradition. On the anniversary of a death, families would share a ritual meal at the grave site of an ancestor. This practice was adopted by Christians who began observing a ritual meal on the death anniversary of ancestors in the faith, especially martyrs. As a result, most Christian saint days are associated with the death of the saint. There are three important exceptions. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus are honored on their nativities (birthdays). Many who suffered martyrdom are remembered on saint days in the calendars of several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Rain

There is an old saying in England that "On Swithin's Day, if it should rain, for forty days it will remain"-a reference to the six-week downpour that supposedly occurred when the saint's remains were moved from the churchyard into the cathedral. A few gentle showers on July 15 are not usually considered a bad thing; in fact, such weather is described as St. Swithin "christening the apples." But no one wants a heavy rain, for fear that it will last as long as that legendary storm.

Just like St. Médard of France and St. Isidor of Spain, St. Swithin is frequently called up when rain is needed-particularly by farmers, even though they greet rain on St. Swithin's Day with considerable anxiety. He is widely known as "the rain saint of England."

FURTHER READING

Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Coulson, John, ed. The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1958. Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. 4th ed. St. Paul, MN: Irish Books and Media, 1984. Dunkling, Leslie. A Dictionary of Days. New York: Facts on File, 1988. Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.

WEB SITE

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia www.newadvent.org/cathen/14357c.htm

St. Swithin's Day

July 15
When Swithin, the bishop of Winchester, England, died in 862, he was buried according to his wish, outside the cathedral in the churchyard, in a place where the rain from the eaves poured down. Whether this request was prompted by humility on his part or a wish to feel "the sweet rain of heaven" on his grave, it was reversed after his canonization, when clerical authorities tried to move his remains to a site within the church. According to legend, the heavens opened and there was a heavy rainfall—a show of the saint's displeasure that made it impossible to remove his body. This led to the popular belief that if it rains on St. Swithin's Day it will rain for 40 days; but if it is fair, it will be dry for 40 days. Swithin is the patron saint of rain, both for and against it.
SOURCES:
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 61
BkFest-1937, p. 60
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 181
DictDays-1988, p. 106
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 150
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 298
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 443
OxYear-1999, pp. 278, 294
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 328