The proverbial phrase a green, or hot, winter, or Christmas, makes a fat churchyard, and its variants, refer to the fact that the winter cold is essential to plants and crops: without it, some would struggle to grow at all, while others would not flower or produce crops (the natural process induced by cold weather is known as vernalisation).
This was explained in the following from Women’s Chat, published in The Thame Gazette (Thame, Oxfordshire, England) of Tuesday 18th December 1928:
The Fat Churchyard.
Many attempts have been made to explain the old saying that “a green yule makes a fat churchyard.” It is usually assumed that the “fat churchyard” is the direct consequence of a mild Christmas season, but we know by statistics which are irrefutable that it is in the severe winters that the death-rate jumps up. That was probably more the case in the old days than it is now, as medical science was less capable then of helping the people over illnesses. The “fat churchyard” could never have been the immediate result of a mild Christmas and there is reason to believe that the origin of the saying was a reference to the farming year. Hard frosts break up the soil and prepare it for yielding a good harvest in the following autumn. In the absence of any such weathering of the land the crops were likely to be poor and it was the consequent scarcity and dearness of food that helped to build up the “fat churchyard.”
The explanation given in The Thame Gazette is corroborated by the text in which the proverbial phrase is first recorded. This text is Speculum Mundi. Or A Glasse Representing the Face of the World ([Cambridge]: Printed by Roger Daniel Printer to the Universitie of Cambridge, 1643), by the Church of England clergyman and encyclopaedist John Swan (bap. 1605–d. 1671)—the fact that the phrase is preceded by “they say” indicates that it was already proverbial:
Such winters as are void of snow, are not so good for the fruits of the ground, as more snowie winters. Whereupon Plinie affirmeth, that he which saith clear winters are to be wished, wisheth no good for the trees and plants: and in that regard your experienced husbandman desireth that the winter may be cold and snowie, rather then clear and warm: For besides this they also say, that a hot Christmas makes a fat Church-yard.
John Swan was referring to the following passage from The Natural History (Naturalis Historia – 77), a vast encyclopaedia of the natural and human worlds, by the Roman statesman and scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79):
Experience has led us to believe that there is nothing more detrimental than a warm winter; for it allows the trees, the moment they have parted with their fruits, to conceive again, or, in other words, to germinate, and then exhaust themselves by blossoming afresh.
—as translated by John Bostock and Henry T. Riley (London: Taylor and Francis, 1855).
The phrase then occurs in the following, from The British Apollo, or, Curious Amusements for the Ingenious. To which are Added the most Material Occurrences Foreign and Domestick (London: Printed for, and Sold by J. Mayo) of Monday 27th–Wednesday 29th November 1710:
Q. Gentlemen, Do you think there is any thing in that common saying; A Green Christmas makes a Fat Church-Yard?
A. We believe there is nothing in it; for we are inform’d by some Ancient People, that at Christmas before the last great Plague, it was a hard continued Frost.
Richard Townley used the phrase in the entry for the 23rd of December 1789 of A Journal kept in the Isle of Man (Whitehaven: Printed by J. Ware and Son, 1791):
It is an old saying, That a green winter makes a fat church-yard. This is certainly a very green winter, even in this rocky island; for there is as fine a verdure in the fields, as if we were advanced two or three months into the spring.
From The Statesman (London, England) of Monday 31st December 1821, the following questions the validity of the proverb:
Weather.—Tuesday, (Christmas-day) was, after an early hour in the morning, so brilliant, mild, and dry, that it would have obtained particular notice, had a fine day been less a rarity in a season like the present. There is a vulgar proverb that “a green Christmas-day makes a fat church-yard;” but the adage is founded on a vulgar error. Though the wet and wind that prevail in mild winters are unpleasant, yet they are far less injurious to health than frost, which while it braces the young and vigorous, and excites them to lively exercise, frequently occasions pulmonary complaints in persons of delicate constitution, and is not seldom fatal to those advanced in age. More old people die in severe winters than at any other time.
The proverb is one of the weather clichés listed in the following from the Morning Advertiser (London, England) of Friday 1st February 1822:
News of the Day.—When common-place acquaintances meet in the street, and after “How do you?”—“Very well, thank you! How are you?”—and “Any thing new to-day?”—“No! Every thing quite flat. Nothing stirring that I hear,”—a pause ensues, which is broken only when one of the parties has wisdom enough to tell his friend—what he must be as sensible of as himself—that “We have confounded wet weather!”—“Very wet indeed!”—“Quite unseasonable! not two successive dry days since August!”—“Aye! this is a new fashioned winter!—No frost!—no snow!”—“Well! a green winter makes a fat church-yard! It is an ill wind that blows no one good! Coffin-makers and sextons must live. Good morning to you!”
The Scottish form of the proverb uses kirkyard—as, for example, in this passage from The Bride of Lammermoor (Edinburgh: Printed for Archibald Constable and Co., 1819), by the Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott (1771-1832):
“That’s right, Annie,” said the paralytic woman; “God send us a green Yule and a fat kirk-yard!”
A HOT MAY MAKES A FAT CHURCHYARD
There is also, incidentally, the proverb a hot May makes a fat churchyard. The English writer on science and phrenologist Thomas Forster (1789-1860) recorded the following in Proverbs relating to the Months, Seasons, &c., published in Researches about Atmospheric Phenomena (London: Printed for Harding, Mavor, and Lepard, 1823):
A hot May makes a fat churchyard.
A green winter makes a fat churchyard.
The proverb a hot May makes a fat churchyard also occurs in the following from The Morning Post (London, England) of Monday 14th May 1827—findy means, of a barn, filled with a plentiful harvest:
There is an old proverb—
“A cold May and a windy
“Makes a full barn and a findy.”
Another— “A hot May makes a fat church-yard.”
From Rural Notes, published in The Graphic (London, England) of Saturday 19th May 1900, the following mentions several proverbs relating to the month of May:
A TYPICAL MAY
May, as one would fain see it, should not be hot, for the proverb says that a hot May makes a fat churchyard. And it should not be a dry month, since “a dry May brings nothing gay.” At the same time “A May wet was never kind yet,” so that an average rainfall of two inches would seem to be the desideratum. It is true that on the Welsh border they say that a “wet May makes a big load of hay,” but the arable counties have also to be considered, and even hay may lose in quality what it gains in bulk. That “a cold May enriches nobody” is an old saying, and as we have already seen that a hot May is dangerous we are once more brought to a safe average position. May, presumably, should have an average temperature, which in England is 53.1 degrees. The statement that “those who bathe in May will soon be laid in clay” is, we trust, confined to bathing sub dio 1. Why “to wed in May” is “to wed poverty” we know not, but May is not a favourite month for marriages either in Protestant or in Catholic countries. It is said that “beans blow before May doth go,” but some late seasons contradict this. There is a saying, too long to repeat, to the effect that wheat in May is apt to look far worse than it really is. We sincerely hope this saying has justification to-day, for the fields by no means promise an average crop. The value of a May swarm of bees 2 needs no description; it is as well known as it is illusory.
1 sub dio: in the open air
2 The bee-keepers’ proverbial saying a swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly means that the later in the year it is, the less time there will be for bees to collect pollen from flowers in blossom. This proverb is first recorded as follows in The Reformed Common-wealth of Bees (London: Printed for Giles Calvert, 1655), by the English educational and agricultural reformer Samuel Hartlib (c. 1600-1662):
A Swarm of Bees in May is worth a Cow and a Bottle of Hay, whereas a Swarm in July is not worth a Fly.
The following remarks are from The Burnley News (Burnley, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 3rd May 1913:
May, beloved of the poets, is a critical month. Whatever its weather, something is bound to happen. A wet May, and “byres will fill with hay,” whereas a hot May fills holiday-makers with joy and churchyards with holiday-makers. So runs the proverb: “A hot May makes a fat churchyard.” For those about to marry, too, the month has its warnings: “Who weds in May weds poverty.”