There is snow on the ground today in St. Louis – not much, just a few inches. The grass is still peeking through the blanket. The temperature is about 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6.66 celsius, the devil’s temperature), and that’s as high as it will get for the next few days. On Monday we are set for a high of five degrees (-15 C) and a low of negative five (-20.55 C) – and it’s supposed to snow again.
Winter is the greatest of the complaining months, the time when the great bounty of kvetching arrives. The minute the solstice tips over and the days start gaining light, we grumble for spring. “This should be illegal,” I see my fellow St. Louisians say on Twitter. “How much more of this can I take?” “I’m thinking of moving to Texas,” I saw one person say, and I shuddered at the thought.
Me? I couldn’t be happier. This is my kind of day.
Personally, a cold and snowy day is one of my favorite types of weather, only eclipsed by a cool and rainy day in late spring. Sunny days call out for work, but rain and snow call for play. Snow invites us out to games and entertainments that aren’t even possible in other kinds of weather. This is why nostalgia is so often tied to the season, I think; winter ties into certain childhood experiences that can’t be replicated through a retro video game console or a remake of a cartoon.
I have an indelible memory of my best friend and me going sledding when we were children, rushing down the hill in our plastic toboggans. Frequently we wiped out, twisting and careening and spinning to the bottom of the hill. Once I recall this ended in tears and a little bit of blood.
But no roller coaster has ever been as much fun. The roller coaster is set up to offer the same experience over and over again – it had better, because a unique roller coaster ride means something has gone terribly wrong. Sledding is always different, though, even on the same hill with the same rider and the same sled, because the snow is different. The snow changes the moment we walk through it.
Beyond those personal attachments to winter life, the season is intensely important for the natural world. In an article in Grist, Matthew Kronsberg notes that winter does important work like eliminating pests and pathogens that would otherwise kill crops and other plants; similarly, without enough “chilling hours,” trees produce less fruit because they have not had the appropriate amount of time to rest and recuperate their energy over the winter. From a spiritual point of view, it is much the same; winter is a time for the Earth, our enchanted mother goddess, to rest and lay dormant, a vital foundation for the flourishing of the year to come.
And yet despite this, I find that even Pagan theology routinely disparages the winter. I notice that a lot of Wheel of the Year rituals share in this distaste for winter.
The solar mythology that is encoded in the Wiccan sabbat calendar makes clear that summer is the good season, as that is when the Sun King is in the full bloom of his power. For that reason, Midsummer, as a holiday, is often tinged with sadness, a sense that there is a tragedy in the truth that being at the height of one’s abilities means that, incurably, one’s abilities must now diminish and fade. (Midwinter, meanwhile, is just the opposite – sure, it’s dark and cold and miserable now, but hey, the light is coming back!)
In either case, the story revolves around the happy days of sun and warmth, either in their prime or in our waiting for their return; the winter rarely gets a chance to be celebrated in its own right. I think that’s a shame. The dark months should mean more to us than this; they have their own gifts, and we should celebrate their coming just as readily as we celebrate the summer.
I think about that bias toward the sun more and more as my own winters go by. In Orion, Sandra Steingraber writes about the disappearance of cold during the winter as global warming continues its seemingly inexorable path. “I predict that the cohort of kids who are now ten to fifteen years old,” she writes, “are going to have a very different worldview than those born just a few years after them. My kids and their friends and everyone roughly their age will, in fact, be the last human beings to remember a stable, predictable procession of seasons.”
She’s probably right. I certainly remember the climate here in St. Louis being markedly different as recently as the early 1990s; our winters are, according to Climate Central, more than three degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were in the 1970s. Our winters are withering away, and without them, the area I live in will see more floods along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and, ironically, greater drought in the outlying rural areas. If I live to be 80 years old, and we do not solve this problem, St. Louis’s winters will be seven degrees warmer then — and the city will largely be unrecognizable.
We must save winter.
In addition to its unique joys, winter has its many unique miseries too, which must also be remembered. By that, I do not mean shoveling snow or scraping the windshield of the car, but rather, the effects of the cold on our houseless neighbors, or on our impoverished fellows who have difficulty paying for heat. But in a year where so many hotel rooms are lying empty and so many people are without shelter, the fact that we have not solved one problem with another should shame all of us; this is not a problem with the season, but with our society.
Even now, in these cold weeks where my fellow St. Louisians complain and beg for spring, the average high temperature in December was five degrees Fahrenheit warmer than “normal.” It has been a warm winter up until now, so I am determined to relish the snow and the cold while they last. At the rate we are going, they will be gone within my lifetime.