Advent 9: the snow

But maybe – just maybe – if we start getting together and talking… With luck, it might even snow for us.’ – Haruki Murakami, After Dark (2004)

Today’s image: snow

Those crystalline flakes, individual entities merging until the landscape is wrapped up like a gift. There appear to be as many uses for the symbol of snow in literature as there are words in Inuit and Yupik languages (an estimated 40-50, depending on the dialect, evidently – it is no myth).

Sometimes, it is a clean, blank canvas of peace and purity. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare (almost) coined a term we still use today: ‘as pure as the driven snow’ to denote moral virtue (the original phrase being ‘as white as driven snow’).

Yet this fresh white sheet is also deceptive, hiding dangers and unpleasant truths beneath. In Ted Hughes’s short story The Snow, endless blizzard appears to  cause the protagonist to become hopelessly lost after a plan crash, fighting for survival—but all is not what it seems. Snow is a popular device in mysteries; icy and unforgiving, it covers tracks and shrouds clues – think of John Banville’s Snow, for example, or Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

Its bleakness can spell isolation. For Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, the snow is preceded by dark clouds gathering, “bringing an earlier night”, presaging a tragic choice, the sledding incident that will leave Frome in the emotional loneliness of an eternal winter. And sometimes, it is simply deathly cold. As cold as the grave, like the “snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” in James Joyce’s The Dubliners.

But where is the joy of it? In children’s books, snow almost always brings delight. This seems to get lost in books for older people – perhaps in part because snowfall begins to signify worrying about getting to work, de-icing the car, and whether schools will close. So, like everything in life, the concept of ‘snow’ becomes more nuanced. Still, in its best moments, it can bring a sense of calm and reconnects us with childhood fun.

For all that, a well-worn fact in UK is that we’re more likely to see snow here during Easter time than at Christmas. In December, winter is only just setting in. Here in the north of England, it snows more frequently than it does for our southern fellow citizens. We had our first fall last week, vacillating between snow and sleet, but settling on the hilltops. In this semi-rural spot, I cannot remember a winter without some snowfall. But at Christmas-time it is, admittedly, quite rare.

Brings back childhood fun

That doesn’t stop us all almost fetishising snow at this time of year. The source of this close conceptual relationship between snow and Christmas derives, of course, as many Christmas symbols do, from the Victorians. Notably from Charles Dickens who, in such works as Pickwick Papers and A Christmas Carol, drew upon the snowy scenes of his own early nineteenth-century childhood. This was during the tail-end of the so-called ‘Little Ice Age’,  a global cooling period occurring from Medieval times into the 1850s. This seasonal relationship is also, again of course, a largely northern-hemisphere bound one. Though I say ‘largely’ because the force of tradition has evidently given us white-flocked and tinselled fir trees in places where it is summer.

I myself am a northern creature. The idea of a ‘Christmas in the sun’ that appears to be a dream for many compatriots does not appeal to me personally. But then, it’s a question of what I am used to. Had I grown up in warmer climes, perhaps I would be looking forward to an outdoors get-together and barbecued seafood platter with as much relish as I am now anticipating brisk walks and curling up indoors with books.

On a final note, we can reflect that snowy days are getting rarer still. I didn’t originally intend to cover messages about our natural environment in this blog series. However, the season, and the times we’re living in, keep reminding me. Of the way the need for awareness of the impact we’re having on the planet is knitted in to everything we do. We remember the childhood joys in Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman: building snowmen, snowball fights, the biting satisfaction of coming indoors from the cold; but we forget the warning. Tomorrow, the snowman, and the idyllic winter landscape, will have melted.

A recent UK Met Office analysis suggests that by the 2040s, most of southern England, at least, may no longer see sub-zero days, and by the 2060s only high ground and northern Scotland are still likely to experience such cold. These long-term projections are, as you would fearfully anticipate, based on accelerating of global emissions.

That cold, hard reminder is chilling.


Gemma Brackenbury ‘Do the Eskimos really have 50 words for snow?’ On The Language Blog, 9 December 2015.
BBC News, ‘Even those scarce snowy winters seem a thing of the past’

Images, thanks
Main photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
and by Pezibear from Pixabay 


Gemma Brackenbury ‘Do the Eskimos really have 50 words for snow?’ On The Language Blog, 9 December 2015.
BBC News, ‘Even those scarce snowy winters seem a thing of the past’

Images, thanks
Main photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
and by Pezibear from Pixabay 

1 thought on “Advent 9: the snow

  1. well, it seems we are moving to “no snow in the winter + no sun in the summer” 😶😉 I’ve heard also that we are moving away from the sun all the time… hm, don’t know what to expect 20 years from now 🤔


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