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Last of Summer Days

"Oh, sacrament of summer days,
Oh, last communion in the haze,
Permit a child to join,
Thy sacred emblems to partake,
Thy consecrated bread to break,
Taste thine immortal wine!"

~ Emily Dickinson, Indian Summer, 1896

“Indian summer” is an 18th century term from North America used to describe an unseasonably warm and sunny patch of weather during autumn, often after a first frost, and usually accompanied by dry, hazy conditions. Though the phrase's origins are as hazy as the period it describes, some have theorized that Native Americans described the warm spell to settlers and used that time of the year to extend their harvest; some tribes' mythologies connect the weather to the sigh of the personified southern wind. In Europe, this same weather phenomenon is variously referred to as "Old Wives Summer," "All-hallown Summer," "Gypsy Summer", "Little Summer", "Badger Summer", "Quince Summer", and even "Pastrami Summer." In other parts of the world, these warm days are named for the respective feast days that occur during a time of unseasonably warm weather - St. Martin's Summer or St. Luke's Summer, amongst others. In Ireland, this phenomenon is sometimes called "fómhar beag na ngéanna" (little autumn of the geese) while elsewhere in Britain, the old term "Goose Summer" morphed into the word "gossamer" linking the season with the low angle sunlight which can illuminate the glint of spent spider silk filaments floating lazily along the last breaths of warm summer air. ☀️ 🕸️

“Indian summer” is a phrase most North Americans use to describe an unseasonably warm and sunny patch of weather during autumn. In U.S. states that experience enough seasonal variation for a brief warming trend to be noticeable, the phenomena is generally observed anywhere from mid-October to early November and normally occurs after the first frost. The warm temperatures are usually accompanied by dry, hazy conditions.

An Indian summer is typically caused by a sharp shift in the jet stream from the south to the north. The warm weather may last anywhere from a few days to over a week and may happen multiple times before winter truly arrives.

To be a true Indian summer, the following generally agreed upon criteria must be met:

  • Temperatures must be above 70 degrees Fahrenheit for a period of at least seven days or more after the autumnal equinox.

  • In the Northeastern U.S. and Canada, the heat wave must occur after the first frost.

The origin of the term “Indian summer” is unknown. One theory suggests that early American settlers mistook the sight of sunrays through the hazy autumn air for Native American campfires, resulting in the name “Indian summer.”  Others speculate that Native Americans recognized this weather pattern and used the opportunity to gather additional food for the winter.

Indian summer is a common occurrence not only in North America, but also throughout temperate European countries, where it is most commonly called “St. Martin’s Summer,” referring  to St. Martin’s Day, which falls on November 11, or “St. Luke’s Summer,” in reference to St. Luke’s Day on October 18.

By designer Carol A.L. Martin, this tartan reflects the muted yellows in autumn when the sun is low in the sky.

Whatever the day, it is a sure sign that winter is coming.

For some Native American summer myths and legends, click the painting of Indian summer on the Hudson River by Albert Bierstadt, 1861.