festivals and traditions / us and them

Indian summer: a bittersweet time

Then a severe frost succeeds, which prepares it to receive the voluminous coat of snow which is soon to follow; though it is often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian Summer.

Hi guys!
Did you know that this period from late October to November is called “Indian summer” in the United States? It’s a meteorological phenomenon that occurs in autumn: the weather is dry, warm and calm, after a period of colder weather or frost. Nights are usually cool and may bring frost, mornings are misty while the fine warm days have blue skies and light winds. The landscape of colorful leaves is delightful, especially thanks to the carpets of fallen leaves with the sound of their rustling underfoot.

In the southwestern United States, the expression “Indian summer” refers to the hottest times of the year (late July or August), while in other parts of the US this hot period is known as dog days, according to the position of Sirius, also called the “Dog Star” because it’s the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Greater Dog).

In the desert, this term indicates a period of hot dry weather between the hottest months and the beginning of winter rains.
Metaphorically speaking, the words “Indian summer” are used to refer to a temporary revival, a rebirth, but why Indian? Well, the etymology of this expression has generated lots of different theories.
According to some, European settlers may have called this phenomenon Indian summer when they first came across it. Or the expression can owe its name to the Indian raids on European settlements, which usually ended in autumn. Some believe the term relates to marine shipping trade on the Indian Ocean, others believe that the haziness of this period was caused by fires set by Native American tribes. This was also the period in which some American Indian tribes harvested their crops.
Furthermore, as the expression “Indian giver” was used to describe a person that gives a gift and then wants it back, Indian summer probably had the original meaning of “false summer”, implying a belief in Indian falsity, which is however difficult to accept!
In the UK this expression started to be widely used from 1950s, even if it had been known since the mid-19th century. It referred to a calm, warm period of weather occurring in autumn, in particular between October and November. However, before the middle of the last century, this “spell” of fine weather was connected to ancient weather traditions and to the Church calendar. For example, in mid-October there was St Luke’s Little Summer, as St Luke’s feast is on 18th October, while in mid-November there was St Martin’s Summer, because this feast day falls on 11th November. Shakespeare used the expression “All Halloween Summer” in Henry IVth to describe a period of fine weather between October and November. Another generic expression to indicate it was “Old Wives’ Summer”. However, there isn’t a precise week when these warm spells recur, while they may occur several times in some years and not at all in others. The aim of all these sayings is to keep people’s spirit up during the approach to winter: the falling leaves will soon leave the branches bare, pleasant weather will give way to a rainy and rough season and people have to wait several months before spring.
As we can notice, the Indian summer can be linked to our feast of St Martin, on November 11th, at the end of the harvesting season; it’s a rural tradition because the yearly rental of the lands would end precisely on November 11th, so it’s a “moving day” because farmers used to move from land to land.

Have you decided how to celebrate the end of our “Indian summer” yet?

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