“Ay, es que estamos en la cabañuela de January.” / “Oh, we’re in January’s cabañuela.”  If you grew up in the Latin American countryside your grandparents may have said this. This city mouse heard the term, “Las Cabañuelas” or Cabanuelas in English for the first time in a private Spanish class in Antigua, Guatemala. My teacher was referencing the previous January’s weather.

What are the Cabanuelas / Las Cabañuelas?

Before modern-day forecasting, decisions on when to plant and how much seed to use were based on reading nature, the stars, sun and other natural phenomena. This concept is embedded in the system known as “reading” the Cabanuelas. “The Cabañuelas is without a doubt a popular science governed by the observation of climate and weather throughout the month of August every year and predicting what the weather will be next year.” (link to quoted text). This author also states, “The Cabañuelas, as stated earlier, is …based on observation of meteorological phenomena and transmitted orally through the ages.” This is expressed in a few Castellano proverbs: “En Agosto está/Agosto tiene el secreto de los doce meses completos,“ which translate to “August has the secret of all twelve months.” August as the annual weather forecaster is a Spanish tradition but the method my teacher referred to in Guatemala (and New Mexico, US and throughout Latin America) employs January.

Predicting the Weather for the Coming Year: Using January as the Example

January 1 – 12: The first 12 days predict the weather for the 12 months of the year. January 1 predicts January’s weather, January 2 predicts February’s weather and January 3 predicts March’s weather and so on through January 12.

January 13 – 24: Beginning on January 13, the weather prediction descends from December to January. January 13 predicts December’s weather and January 14 predicts November’s weather and so on through January 24.

January 25 – 30: These days are split in half to predict the weather for the 12 months. The first half of the day on January 25 predicts January and the second half predicts February’s weather and so on.

January 31: Every two hours of January 31’s 24 hours predicts the weather of the 12 months.

There is an alternative to the above in which January or August 1 is the “llave del año” / “key to the year” providing predictions for the entire calendar year. The rest of the month would follow the above pattern but one day off and January 31 or August 31 would predict November and December.

The Cabañuelistas

The reading of the cabanuelas were/are executed by experienced cabañuelistas for they say “hombre lunero no llena granero” / “men who spend too much time observing the moon, don’t fill up the granary,” or “labrador con mucha astronomía en eso se pasa el día” / “while the farm laborer spends his time in astronomy, the day goes by.” In other words, an experienced cabañuelista can quickly and effectively forecast the weather for the year to come.

The Origin of the Practice and Term, Cabañuelas

Theories abound explaining the origin of this weather-predicting method as they have been practiced for thousands of years in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia. As mentioned earlier, the Cabañuelas are an oral tradition, likely contributing to the challenge of determining its source.

One popular theory is the Cabañuelas originated from Zamuk, a festival (or feast depending on the source) of luck or predictions during the Babylonian New Year. The Akitu ceremony during this ancient Mesopotamian festival predicts the weather for the next 12 months. The festival lasted twelve days.

Other sources suggest the term “cabañuelas” and perhaps its origin come from the Jewish “festival of the tabernacles” presumably as tabernacles, the huts the Jews used for shelter while wondering the desert in search of the Promised Land are known as “cabañas.” Cabaña is the Spanish word for shelter, small cabin or house. Cabañuelas was a Jewish festival in Toledo, Spain, historically a place where culturally thriving communities of Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted. The festival was celebrated in August in memory of the time they spent in the desert known as the “Feast of the Tabernacle.”

As noted, Spain’s cabañuelas forecasted the weather in August. Another word used for cabañuelas in Spain is “témporas,” a term for the season of the Ember Days in Christianity and also which shares a Latin root with the word “tiempo” meaning weather.

The Maya called these practices “chac-chac.” The most important day was day 16, called “Caban,” which they believed to be the origin of the world and thought to be the root of the word, Cabañuelas. The Mayan calendar had 18 months of 20 days each and a separate 5 non-month days. The first 18 days of the first month predicted 18 months of the year. Day 19 and 20 predicted the summer and winter solstices respectively.  It is believed that in pre-Hispanic Mexico, the Aztecs adopted this knowledge from the Mayans.

Regardless of origin, if you travel to the Latin American countryside, ask about the Cabañuelas. Without a doubt you’ll hear some interesting stories!