Winter, like Janus, the god who symbolizes January, has two faces.
For our ancestors, it was a wary season. They spent most of their days gathering fuel to stoke the fireplaces that kept them warm. Winter meant no crops would grow, and those who had suffered a bad harvest faced a real danger of starvation. On the American prairies or the Russian steppes or the other vast treeless lands of this Earth, the howling winds of the inevitable blizzard drove many men and women mad. Some believed that spirits, good and bad, inhabited winter evenings. Ghosts and goblins were abroad on the long evenings.
Winter doldrums still stalk modern man; the season is certainly not kind to those who suffer from lack of light, shelter, or warmth. But it can be a magical season as well. Even on the frontier there were sleigh rides, taffy pulls, snow fights, and dances, bobbing lanterns brightening the bleak landscape.
In the winter, each home becomes its own oasis. Summer turns us outward, winter turns us inward. It is a time for family gatherings, warm soup or hot chocolate, the family room as hearth, whether the family is watching television, reading, playing a game, or just spending quiet time. It is a time of the softness of flannel and fleece, the enticing warmth of comforters and throws, for those lucky ones the glow of the fireplace. The scents of wet wool and wet dog mix with more appealing odors: warm chocolate or coffee, crock-pot dinners, peppermint for cocoa, hot chicken soup.
Yet there is something outside that calls us as well. The air is clean and cold, and a deep breath is like a draught of cold drink on a warm day. The chill drives away the languor of oppressive heat and awakens dormant thoughts and inspires activities. What a fine day for a brisk walk with the dog, a bicycle ride, a game or two of tag or hide'n'seek with the children, knowing you won't end up sticky with sweat and dehydrated!
In many places an inevitable part of winter is snow. Its drawbacks must be endured: snow clearing, driving more carefully, avoiding ice patches. It is only after the exhausting work that an adult can enjoy the snowy landscape--and for many it overshadows the pleasure.
But snow is also the great equalizer: it can turn adults into children. If we can look beyond the aching muscles and the salt stains on the cars, we can appreciate the soft landscape it has left us. The world becomes quiet, muffled and humming its own peculiar song. A cover of snow makes the grubby bright again and lends a festive air to whatever landscape it coats, whether city or country. Even telephone wires and bare tree branches become confections. And there are snow tramps to take, snowmen and snowforts to build, snowballs to toss. For the lucky ones in the country, along with the work may come a sleigh ride. The skiers fill the hills and the ice underfoot becomes a dancing ground for skaters.
Winter can be a hard season, but it also holds much fun. And nothing's more fun than a...
It was the weatherman who started it. He indicated the map behind him, drawn with elegantly curved cold fronts and the inevitable image of a cloud with a frosty face blowing snow. "Three to six inches of snow expected, with the storm beginning after midnight."
It was the signal for housewives and children sent with carefully folded money in a mitten to race to the grocery store. Invariably they cleared the shelves of bread and milk. People drink coffee and tea during snowstorms. They still eat dinner of meats and vegetables. But still the bread and milk were stripped away first. Perhaps the classic snowstorm meal was buttered toast and cocoa? The phenomenon is unexplained to this day.
It was a generally convivial convocation: women in snow boots and long cloth coats and wool kerchiefs or hats, kids in wool coats or jackets, the girls' knees tinged with blue under their skirts, the boys' ears crimson from cold because of course they had ripped their hats off as soon as they exited Mother's view. Everyone blew white smoke as they entered and exited, and the adults talked about the storm as an inconvenience. The kids just grinned at each other...hoping.
Long before bedtime, and it was early back then, eight p.m. or so, the small fry would peer eagerly out the frosted windows into the gloom. Maybe the snow would start early and they'd glimpse the first magical flake as it drifted under a street lamp or in the headlight of a passing car. Outside, drivers were ready; already, even through storm windows, you could hear the sound of jingling: not sleigh bells, but tire chains, carefully mounted by cussing dads who had earlier discovered links missing. The silvery chain sound was like a holiday air and you fell asleep to dreams of whiteness.
It was dark next morning and the fitful radiator wasn't giving much heat. It probably needed to be "bled." Everyone was reluctant to leave the cocoon of blankets, but the children huddled most of all, not daring to believe their wish had come true. The first noise was the muffled slam of the porch door and perhaps a tinkle of glass tapping glass. The milkman. Next, if you were a morning paper family, it would be the paperboy. Finally came the stirring of parents, the sharp clicks of light switches, footsteps. Dad had evidently looked out the window, for, in deference to his children's tender ears, he was muttering in Italian.
More movement, including the distinctive back door sound. Tentative heads emerged from the blankets. Still pitch dark. You could just discern the rectangles that were windows and even through the curtains and blinds, there was a faint silvery light. You held your breath. Was that scraping you heard outside? But scraping meant nothing...Dad cleared a path no matter what.
Muffled voices. Mom had turned on the radio, but nothing was intelligible. At this rate you'd have to get up to see...to creep to the window, to open the door to ask...
From outside the sound came, the one you'd been waiting for. The snowblower bellowed to life, roaring its challenge. You kicked off the blankets, unmindful now of the cold, burst from the bedroom. Mom was making coffee in the tall silver coffeepot with the glass top. When the coffee perked you could see it bubble up in the glass and underneath the pot, the gas flame danced a friendly blue.
Since you were up, Mom turned up the volume--the news was important now. She tried to "let you down easy." "Don't count on staying home from school. When I was a girl, we still had to go in weather like this." But when Mom was a girl, they didn't have school buses. The buses actually were the reason school was canceled, not that the children couldn't walk--heck, every child in town would be out in the snow before the morning was over.
No matter what station you usually listened to, on snowy days it was de rigueur to turn the dial to WPRO. Their snow day cancellation reports were the most complete. Children all over the state listened breathlessly as Salty Brine read from the list.
Well, except the kids in Foster and Glocester. If a flake fluttered through the sky they canceled school in Foster and Glocester. Other Rhode Island schoolchildren lived in perpetual envy.
"No school Fosta-Glosta." No news there. Then "No school Burrillville. No school Smithfield. No school Chariho." ("Chariho" wasn't even a city, but the conglomerate school district of Charlestown, Richmond, and Hopkinton.) "No school West Warwick. No school Arctic." C'mon, Salty!
"No school Warwick. No school Providence. No school Cranston..."
The deep sighs of the mothers could almost be heard over the whoops of the kids. A snow day meant youngsters underfoot during housework and hot lunches to make because there would be soaked and chilled children with wet coats, snow pants, boots, mittens, hats and water all over the floor. Prudent parents had already covered the linoleum with newspaper and pulled boot trays from the closet.
Children who would have normally been grumbling and playing sick were already racing to get dressed. The firm Hand of Mom prevailed. It needed to be light out first. Breakfast must be eaten, and since you are home, beds must be made, rooms must be straightened, bureaus must be dusted.
Dad finally came in from digging his car out. Work was rarely canceled because cars couldn't get through. He was shapeless and his face obscured in an old grey woolen hooded coat that was older than you were but was warm and weatherproof. The snow-encrusted coat was left on the back porch along with snow-clotted boots. His first words were usually, "Stupid weatherman! It's past six inches now and it's still snowing." Yes, many were the times that Dad shoveled six inches of "partly cloudy" off the driveway. Usually he asked what you were doing up already because you didn't awake until after he'd left for work. The answer was always the same: "But it's snowing, Daddy!" (Sometimes grownups seemed so dense!)
Mom fed him eggs and bacon and hot coffee smelling of heaven fresh from the percolator. She took out the egg beater and whipped up a fresh eggnog for you: eggs fresh from the farm, Hood's milk, and the smallest bit of sugar. Because it was cold she would tip a spoonful of brandy into the concoction and didn't that taste good!, although you wouldn't have been caught dead sipping it straight. The sugar, eggs and milk gave it all its taste.
It was usually nine o'clock before you were allowed out of the house--and emerged to a world transformed. Except for the slices cut by snowplows and shovels, the yards and streets and trees and fences were coated by glittering white icing. Shabby yards were made beautiful, old fences picturesque. Even the garbage cans looked jaunty in snowy caps. The air had a cold shimmer that trembled each time you blew a smoky breath. If snow clouds still hovered above, they were a peculiar whitish grey that spoke of more snow; if the skies had cleared they would be a brilliant blue that burned into your memory as a sample of what blue should be. The blanket of snow made everything quieter. Motions, voices, movement were muffled, even the joyful squeals of kids let loose.
In keeping with the day little girls might have skirts on with snow pants underneath, plus coats buttoned up to the chin, warm hats, scarves, mittens, and the ubiquitous rubber boots which took monumental tugging to get over your shoes. Like Randy in A Christmas Story, most of us resembled stuffed ticks. The boys would run riot and rip off caps and gloves and begin snowballing each other almost immediately. And then children of both sexes, would run to garages and porches and sheds for a sled or a saucer or even an old piece of cardboard, make their way across the sand-and-salt encrusted street where the tire chains sang merrily as the automobiles creaked by, and spend the morning sliding down the hill into the baseball field.
A solitary child or children might find other pursuits. If the snow wasn't heavy, one could use feet scuffled sideways to mark out paths to landmarks in the backyard. In vivid imagination this could then be the landscape of your favorite television show, a storybook world, or even a kingdom of your own creation. Mounted on a stick horse, or with a toy weapon, one could ride to the rescue like Roy Rogers or canter through the woods of Sleepyside like Trixie Belden.
About midmorning, when the snow finally stopped, Mom would emerge and clean the sidewalks with a shovel and a broom, in fear that they'd turn into skating rinks after dark. Those youngsters old enough to help did so. Mom always needed help because invariably after Dad had cleared the driveway and gone inching off to work on badly-plowed streets, the snowplow would return and shove a pile of dirty hardened snow, ice, and gunk into the entrance. It had to be chopped, shoveled, and shifted away if Dad was to get back into the driveway that night and if you wanted to avoid the threat of a cold night turning the plow rubble into ice floes you'd have to navigate next day.
Lunchtime. The wet garments Mom feared were stretched over chairs in front of the gas oven, which was set on low after Mom cracked the kitchen window just the merest fraction. For some of us, lunch was homemade chicken soup, thick with egg noodles or rice, and savory with bits of chicken and perhaps escarole. Other kids had soup from a can or sandwiches. The bookworms among us took advantage of lunch hour to sit at the television and watch Jeopardy.
We were already tired, but it didn't keep us from re-donning damp coats smelling of wet wool and hats and scarves and boots and mittens and going back out again. Mom was relieved--the house would be free of wet things for a while; she could mop the floor and then watch her soaps.
The unfatiguable of the bunch would keep on coasting. The rest of us took our nickels and dimes and marched to the various superettes. These small convenience stores and groceries were piping warm with steam heat and a good thing, because a wintry draft accompanied every small child who came through the wooden door with the clamor of the bell mounted above. We would crowd around the candy counter. What was better, we wondered, spending all our largesse on a big Hershey bar or picking out this or that from the candy counter: mint julep and banana chews, Squirrel Nut caramels, Mary Janes, Bit'O'Honeys, licorice sticks, candy buttons, wax bottles with flavored syrup in them. The mavericks in the bunch bought ice cream bars and Fudgesicles. It made us shiver just to look at them. As we ruminated and pushed and talked the linoleum grew sodden beneath us because we never could remember to stamp off our boots and wipe our feet on the big rubber mat in the doorway.
When we emerged there was a show of sorts. Leash laws were lax and every dog in town was loose, sniffing at snowbanks and...well, doing what dogs do to them. Vicious dogs existed in junkyards and television series; we had nothing to fear from these friendly mutts who came wagging up to us, nosing industriously at our candy. If they crossed the street and got into the field, they turned into goofy, romping puppies, digging into the snow. Some rolled in it. Heck, some of the kids rolled in it as well.
Night falls early on those winter nights. We were home when Dad was, and more coats dripped on porches and down in the cellar next to the furnace. Dinner was cooking: big plates of spaghetti or roast chicken or broiled pork chops or rump steak, vegetables or salad, and usually fresh Italian bread on the side--Mom having felt the urge to go out into the snow as well and made a trip to the neighborhood bakery. By the time dinner ended and Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite were talking about the day's events, many of us were heavy-eyed from too much fun and fresh air. It wasn't uncommon to perch on the sofa with a book or a coloring book and crayons and topple sideways with eyes at half-most smack in the middle of What's My Line? or The Lucy Show. Next thing we knew it would be baths and footie pajamas and blanket cocoons.
We were smiling as we fell asleep. School was tomorrow...but oh, what a day it had been!
Winter sneaked in;
The pumpkins, bright orange,
That cool nippy chill
For Winter had tiptoed,
The Shortest Day
So the shortest day came, and the year died,
When winter crowns the rough marsh grass
When winter rears a crystal tree
When winter etches snow on bough
I was young in the snow;
I loved the chill of icicle air,
Now I no longer run,
In a red topcoat
To sound and sight
What heart could have thought you? --
Beneath a sky of cobalt blue,
Vivid blue jays, brave and bold,
Icy winds sculpt drifts of white
|Snow covered trees surround a serene pond in Idaho.
|Snow-covered valley in Tennessee.
|Skaters on the Fleet ice rink in Providence, RI.
|This picturesque Vermont country church and village nestles in the snow.
|A snow-covered tree against a sky so blue it hurts.
|Waterplace Park, Providence, in the snow.
Winter "Lifesavors" *
» ... Brilliant white snow caps perched on grey-brown fenceposts.
» ... Flitting pied chickadees and dusky sparrows chattering over their breakfast seed.
» ... Sipping rich chocolate liquid as you watch the snowflakes play tag with each other outside.
» ... Snow-frosted dogs leaping into the next drift.
» ... Chain-link fences turned to lace by a fresh snowfall.
» ... A sunny winter day with the sky of bluebird blue overhead.
» ... A dark sketch of honking geese against a snow-silvered sky.
» ... Snowflakes twirling like ballerinas as they whisk back and forth in the wind.
» ... Bare tree branches stark against white landscapes, a study in monochrome.
» ... The deep blue of shadows pouring from under buildings.
» ... Scenting rich, freshly-brewed coffee as you stamp snow from your boots.
* With apologies to Reader's Digest
SnowCrystal.com: Everything snow!
National Snow and Ice Data Center
Make Your Own Snowflake
Raymond Briggs' The Snowman
All About Yule
New England Ski Museum
World Figure Skating Museum
The History of Hot Chocolate
The History of Gingerbread
Real Jewish Chicken Soup
Chanukah on the Net
History Channel's Hanukkah Page
Billy Bear's Hanukkah
The Hanukkah House
Billy Bear's Kwanzaa
The Official Kwanzaa Website
Kwanzaa on the Net
Martin Luther King Day on the Net
Official Groundhog Day Site
General Lee: the Southern Groundhog
Valentine's Day on the Net
Billy Bear's Valentine's Day
History of Valentines Day
Annie's Valentines History Page
Purim on the Net
Abraham Lincoln Library & Museum
Abraham Lincoln at the History Place
Washington's Home: Mount Vernon
George Washington Picture Gallery
How Maple Syrup is Made
Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Patrick
The History of St. Patrick's Day
Italians Celebrate St. Joseph's Day
St. Joseph's Day
The images on this page were culled from various sources, including Country magazine (a periodical by Reiman Publications). I hope they do not mind my using their images in this small paean to my favorite second-favorite season. If so, I will remove them. If you enjoy the Country photos, I heartily suggest you buy or subscribe to the magazine.
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