Indian Summer: What It’s All About

Outside it’s slowly getting dull and uncomfortably wet and cold. But then suddenly autumn shows itself once again from its most beautiful and warmest side. Whenever the foliage turns golden shades of orange, red and yellow, the common term comes up. But what is it about the so-called Indian summer? What peculiarities does it bring with it and when exactly does it begin? We would like to get to the bottom of these questions and interesting myths about the topic together with you.

What do we mean by Indian summer?

The meaning of the so-called Indian summer is actually clear: we talk about when autumn shows its chocolate side – with abundant sunshine, blue skies and high temperatures during the day. Even though the nights usually already seem crisp and cool, summer returns during the day. Some meteorologists even think that Indian summer is the only summer that can really be relied on.

Did you know that this period of good weather is also called “women’s summer” or “summer of flight”? And other countries also have a kind of fifth season that lets summer return once more. In North America, for example, the forests turn iconic shades of orange, red and yellow, as in Canada. There, the spectacle that we call Indian summer is called “Indian summer”.

Indian Summer: What It's All About

Why do the leaves change colour in autumn?

This has a chemical background. Leaves contain the green pigment chlorophyll. As soon as the nights get cooler, the trees reduce photosynthesis and then store the substance needed for this in the roots, branches and trunk. Carotenoids and xantophylls appear in the leaves. Anthocyanins are also formed. These colour the leaves orange, yellow or red.
Where does Indian summer get its name?

But what exactly is the source of the name Indian summer? This is a question that most of us are certainly asking ourselves today. But it is not that easy to answer, because the origin of the name cannot be traced back to just one meaning.

One obvious explanation, however, relates to the old European expression weiben. Even if it initially suggests it, it has nothing to do with older ladies. Rather, it refers to the weaving of spider webs. And these fine threads can be seen particularly well in sunny autumn in meadows, at the edges of woods, in bushes or even on autumn flowers, as the alternation of warm days and cold nights causes delicate morning dew to be deposited on them. The spider threads then appear like long silver-grey hair in the sunlight.

And another explanation describes the sunny autumn phase. In written language, Indian summer was first mentioned at the beginning of the 19th century. At that time, the year was still divided exclusively into two phases, winter and summer. Spring with its early blossoms in the first half of summer was called “young woman’s summer”, autumn was called “old woman’s summer”.

And what about today? Can we still call it Indian summer?

In fact, the term does not generate positive reactions everywhere. In 1996, a senior citizen filed a lawsuit at the local court in Darmstadt because she felt discriminated against by the European Weather Service’s use of the word. However, the complaint was dismissed as unfounded.
When is Indian summer?

Indian summer usually occurs sometime between summer and autumn, usually between mid-September and mid-October. Just when autumn has already arrived with falling temperatures and the days are getting shorter, summer comes back all of a sudden and gives us a few last sunny, warm days.

This daytime warm spell is determined by a continental high pressure system over Eastern Europe, as it brings dry air to us in Central Europe. Clear, windless days and high temperatures are the result. Meteorologists refer to Indian summer as a weather rule case or also as a meteorological singularity.

Indian summer: spiders and cobwebs – what’s it all about?

Now spider webs seem to be a typical feature in Indian summer. But where do the cobwebs in Indian summer come from? And where do the flying spiders come from? Do spiders make themselves comfortable before the onset of autumn and spin winter-proof dwellings? The answer is: no. The reason is rather the canopy spider.

Especially the young spiders, which are only a few millimetres in size, but also the adults, use their so-called flight threads to transport themselves quickly and effortlessly through the air to new habitats, which is a successful strategy of dispersal. Biologists refer to this as “ballooning”. However, this only works when it is warm and windless.

They often build their nets in bushes or meadows, slightly curved and horizontal. There they are then perceived lying in the morning dew – like a canopy or silver-grey woman’s hair. Thus Indian summer offers ideal conditions for the canopy spider and its flight threads predict gloriously sunny autumn weather.
Indian summer: Meaning, myths and folk sayings

Throughout history, there are names for various weather phenomena that are often linked to farming rules and old myths. For example, in addition to Indian summer, there are also the cold sheep days, the Ice Saints and the so-called dog days. They all have one thing in common: they refer to the weather and thus to possible consequences for agriculture, people and nature. For the rural population of the past, they were essential for survival, because there were no weather services like there are today.

The myths and legends surrounding Indian summer have a long history. They are based on attempts to explain phenomena that science could not explain hundreds of years ago. This is also true of spider threads and their significance. Or have you heard of Mary’s threads, Mary’s hair or Mary’s silk? In Christianity, the silvery, sparkling threads were thought to be the yarn from Mary’s cloak. According to tradition, she wore it during her Ascension.
Folk sayings about Indian summer

When Indian summer appears, it always has something to do with saying goodbye to the warm, pleasant season. For at the latest after this brief return of summer, it is usually followed by wet, cold autumn weather. This is also reflected in the farmers’ rules. Here are a few examples and their meaning:

"When many spiders crawl, they already smell winter": The farmer's rule says that winter is approaching as soon as the (canopy) spider increases in Indian summer. So it was important to be well prepared for the cold season.
"Indian summer does not do well for long, and is also in all saints' hats": Even if it lasts until All Saints' Day (1 November), Indian summer does not last long. Winter is approaching. This is what this peasant wisdom says.
"Saint Leopold is favourable to Indian summer": Saint Leopold's memorial day is on November 15. So, according to the farmer's proverb, on this day it is often still warm and beautiful in late summer.
"If the Michel comes bright and beautiful, it will continue for four weeks": Saint Michael's day of remembrance is on 29 September. If you believe the farmer's rule, a late summer Michaelmas will be followed by four weeks of Indian summer.

Attention: The calendar has shifted!

It is important to know that most of the folk rules originate from the time of the Julian calendar – a forerunner of the Gregorian calendar in use today. Accordingly, they were written before the calendar reform of 1582, when the calendar was advanced by eleven days. For this reason, the weather phenomena today may occur with a time lag from the dates originally recorded in farmers’ rules.

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