Pyrrharctia isabella: Wikimedia

Pyrrharctia isabella: Wikimedia

Woolly bear says: Oil prices are down. Fill the oil tank now.

The Farmer’s Almanac predicts a cold and snowy winter for New England. The National Weather Service predicts a “normal” one. What say you, woolly bears?

Folklore holds that the length of this cute caterpillar’s black and brown segments hint at the coming winter’s length. I can never remember which part–the black ends or the brown middle–means what. Fortunately, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has given some time to the subject.

Says NOAA, “The longer the woolly bear’s black bands, the longer, colder, snowier, and more severe the winter will be.” Dear NOAA, what could possibly be “more severe” than long, cold, and snowy? Is there a dimension of unpleasantness I’m forgetting? Frosty-bity? Wind-burny? Icerageous?


Grown up Pyrrharctia_isabella. Wikimedia {pd]

Anyway, here’s the true fact: As a woolly bear spends the summer and fall gnawing on your dandelions and clover, it grows, and molts six times. Each time, the new skin has a wider strip of red hairs. Ergo, a woolly bear with long black ends predicts that you’re talking to a kid; a completely red one predicts that you’re looking at a ‘pillar poised on the precipice of pupation.

This puts the woolly bear’s predictive power on a par with that of the Farmer’s Almanac. Also like the Almanac, a woolly bear can survive freezing at -90F. Woolly bear don’t care how long winter is.


[PD] wikimedia

[PD] wikimedia

It’s meant, according to my favorite folklore, to go over the front door, not to dangle from an interior doorway. And the kissing is not meant to be the boy-girl kind.

Though there are 700 hypotheses on the origin of hanging mistletoe over a door, here’s my best interpretation:

(First, assume any plant that’s green all winter gets special attention in the north. Mistletoe is one of those.)

Now assume it’s the Dark Ages and there are no police. People, being people, are going to peeve each other, take one another’s sheep, slay one another’s relatives, etc.

There are also no Hallmark cards to send, with pretty writing inside that says, “All right, forget about the five chickens you owe me. I miss having that beer you make.”

Come the mid-winter festivals of “oh my god will this this darkness ever end,” people would bring green plants indoors to remind themselves to not kill themselves just yet. And there being no TV to watch, they invited the neighbors in for some story-telling.

If neighbors were slow to materialize, paralyzed by self-consciousness over stolen goods or murdered relatives, a signal was needed to indicate that, today at least, the need for company is greater than the need for vengeance. Remember that reading was practiced mainly among monks. So in Scandinavia, up went the mistletoe over the door–the exterior door, so that you knew from a distance you would be safe.

So says my favorite folklore: All who entered were assured of forgiveness.

The kissing? Kissing was not always romantic and spitty. Consider the Pope’s ring. Jesus and Judas. Kissing used to be really big in the sorting out of status. And as a symbol of allegiance. To kiss under the mistletoe was actually redundant: Both signaled that you were on the same team.

Today, anyway. Winter is long up here on the shoulder of the planet. It wouldn’t hurt to keep that mistletoe up for a while.