by the NYAM Library Team
Before the written word, we relied on our stories being passed down orally. These tales were meant to explain and justify the mysteries of the world around us. Fables, folksongs, and myths are examples of these. Our common superstitions act as bite-sized versions of this folklore.
While every month has its sayings , March is known specifically for two. “Beware the ides of March,” comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Rome’s dictator hears these words from a mysterious oracle on the day that he was assassinated. Through the years the saying has trickled down into our collective lexicon. It warns of caution towards the middle of March; the Ides fall on the 15th.
The other common saying is “March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb.” It’s included in various compendiums of popular superstitions without any specific origin. It makes sense, though, that after the destruction of crops by killing frost, the fresh fertility of the land brings to mind an innocent animal. Lambs have long had religious symbolism for innocence and these animals were also a sign of luck. The first lamb of Spring meant good fortune, specifically if it faced you. If it was caught looking away, that was thought less lucky . After this yearly demise of crops, “luck” was needed. Previously March had been known as “boisterous” month in the Middle Ages, as well as the “windy” month in the revolutionary calendar of the first French republic.
Academic, teacher, and author Dr. Frank Clyde Brown started to accumulate folklore related to his state of North Carolina. On the advice of the American Folklore Society, he created the North Carolina Folklore Society in the early 1910s. He collected state-specific stories, songs, and tales from about 1910 to 1940. When he died in 1943, the collection became known as the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore.
Brown’s collection was published almost twenty years after his death as Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina. Upon its publication, the work is believed to have been the “first general work along comparative lines” of specifically American proverbs.
Included in this collection is a longer saying, “If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb. If March comes in like a lamb, it will go out like a lion.” For the most part, we don’t hear the second sentence anymore. Our predecessors believed in explanations for all of life’s occurrences and often arrived at the answer of balance: if a month began with a storm, surely it would end brightly and sunny! Perhaps for snappier flow, lines needed excision.
That’s not to say that these sayings are not around anymore! Nor does it negate their kernels of truth, some based on observed early science. We still circulate many of these whether it be in the water cooler at work or shared on social media. It is important to place these within context. We now know that they are not to be taken as facts but rather as what was once believed to be facts.
As the dreaded ides of March draw near, we offer up a few more of these sayings from the Brown Collection to celebrate the month:
-A thunderstorm in March indicates an early spring.
-A windy March and a rainy April make a beautiful May (Also, March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers).
-The first thunderstorm in March wakes up the alligators.
-Fog in March; Frost in May.
-The better the hunter you are, and the more you know about wild things, the surer you are that all rabbits turn to “he-ones” in March.
-If you plant seeds on St. Patrick’s Day, they will grow better.
-A dry March never begs bread.
-Frost never kills fruit in March, no matter how full the tree blooms.
And for those hoping for a fruitful March, I leave you with
-To make cabbage seed grow, sow them in your night clothes on March seventeenth.
Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Rev. by Ivor H. Evans. New York: Harper & Row, c1970.
Hand, Wayland D. (ed.). The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore Volume VI: Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina. Durham: Duke University Press, 1964.
Hand, Wayland D. (ed.). The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore Volume VII: Popular Beliefs and Superstitions from North Carolina. Durham: Duke University Press, 1964.
Hole, Christina (ed.). Encyclopaedia of Superstitions. London : Hutchinson, 1961.
Platt, Charles. Popular Superstitions. London : H. Jenkins, Ltd., 1925.