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. 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 snow 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.
If the snow on the roof melts off, the next storm will be rain. If it blows off, you can calculate on 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 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.
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.
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 it will snow earlier in the fall. In 1852, Isaac Stearns of Mansfield, Mass., decided to examine that assumption. He submitted his analysis to The New England Farmer. A few flakes had fallen on Oct. 15 and New Englanders were commenting that it was earlier than usual. Stearns submitted the chart below:
He then informed New England Farmer readers that
The earliest snow in any one season fell at the close of the remarkable violent and destructive storm of Oct. 3 and 4, 1841, which my book says was the most severe since the storm of Oct. 10, 1806. In the former many lives and much property was lost on and near Cape Cod. It will be perceived that for most of the snow no depth is set down, as no depth was visible. It has been remarked that when snows hold out late in the spring, they will come earlier in the next fall. The examination of the above table seems to indicate that to be the case generally.
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.