“Hasta el cuarenta de mayo, no te quites el sayo” goes the traditional Spanish refrain, and I must sadly say that today’s weather bears it out. Weather can be unstable throughout Spain during the month of May. Farmers often refer to it as “the longest month of the year” as they spend it worrying about the possibility of sharp fluctuations in temperature and damaging hailstorms. Their apprehensions are preserved in many folk verses:
Dios nos libre de las heladas de mayo.
Helada de mayo, agua en la mano.
Si no hubiera mayo, no hubiera mal año.
Hielos en la cruz de mayo, siempre hacen daño.
El mes de mayo es el mes más largo que tiene el año.
May God preserve us from the frosts of May.
One May frost can leave you empty-handed.
If there were no month of May, there would be no bad years.
Mid-May frosts always cause damage.
May is the longest month of the year.
A “sayo” is a loose-fitting, buttonless overgarment. According to the Real Academia Española, it was originally ankle length. The “cuartenta de mayo” (fortieth of June) is a poetic expression for the tenth of June. Spanish folk wisdom maintains that one can expect rough weather until mid-June and people still cite the phrase whenever a late spring freeze blows in:
En abril y en mayo no dejes en la casa el sayo.
Hasta el cuarenta de mayo, no te quites el sayo.
Guarda el sayo para mayo, por si en vez de derecho viene de soslayo.
Cuando mayo va a mediar, debe el invierno acabar.
De tus leños mil, guarda cien para abril; y por si acaso guarda algunos para mayo.
In April and May, never leave home without a cloak.
Till the tenth of June, bundle up.
Keep a wrap handy in May in case a northwest wind blows in.*
Winter should loosen its grip by mid-May.
If you have a thousand logs in your woodpile, put aside a hundred for April and a few extra for May.
*This particular refrain could be from Aragon, where the cold fronts come from the north but the bone-chilling and unpredictable “Cierzo” wind (related to the better known “Mistral” of Southern France) blows in from the northwest.
John Stevens recorded the refrain in his ‘A New Spanish and English Dictionary‘ published in London in 1706, translating it as “Do not leave off your Coat till May be past.”
The equivalent refrain in English is “Leave not off a Clout Till May be out,” which the British Phrases.org claims first appeared in print in Thomas Fuller’s 1732 work Gnomologia. Although the word “clout” has had many spellings and almost as many meanings, the clout in this particular English saying refers to a piece of cloth, which probably served the same purpose of the Spanish sayo. There is some doubt, however, as to whether “till May is out” refers to the end of month of May or the flowering of the Hawthorne tree, also known as the May tree. The second hypothesis may not be as farfetched as it might seem. The same source reports that over 200,000 miles of Hawthorne hedge were planted in England between 1750 and 1850.
More modern variations are:
Button to chin, till May be in,
Cast not a clout till May be out
The wind at North and East
Was never good for man nor beast
So never think to cast a clout
Until the month of May be out
both of which seem to favor the month theory.
The sayo is mentioned in a number of Spanish refrains. “Hacer su capa un sayo” (to make a long overgarment from a cape) is clearly an impossible task. This saying is roughly equivalent to “Do your own thing, however ridiculous it may seem to others.” The Mexicans have taken this a step further, combining two different sayings to make “que cada quien haga de su capa un sayo y de su culo un papalote” (in polite speech, “ Let everyone make a long coat from his cape and a kite out of his backside.”) In certain parts of Mexico, the kite has been transformed into papagayo (parrot) to better rhyme with sayo.
Then there is “A quien le venga el sayo, que se lo ponga,” equivalent to the English “If the shoe fits, wear it.”
As seen in these lovely illustrations from the Historia del Traje WordPress fashion blog, the word “sayo” has been used variably for long robes, , overgarments, and complete layered outfits at different points in history. One should be careful not to confuse “sayo” con “saya”, the long skirts similar to the “polleras” of Central American, that Spanish women traditionally layered in winter to protect themselves from the cold. My husband remembers his grandmother wearing as many as five sayas on a cold winter day!
Raised on “April showers bring May flowers,” I’m a bit impatient with bad weather in May. However, in a drought-stricken country such as Spain, water is (almost) always considered a blessing. A rainy May implies a glorious, if fleeting, verdant landscape:
Mayo mojado, del barbecho hace prado.
A rain-soaked May turns the fallow fields to green pastures.
As the temperature rises and the fields turn dusty and brown, the torrential downpours of May fade into memory and all modern forms of the traditional sayo are packed away until the chill of autumn returns. I, personally, have my sights set on the tenth of June and the first true days of summer weather.