Up and Down the River by Cathy Johnson and guest writers is published weekly in the Big Rapids Pioneer.
By Cathy Johnson
Technically, winter, as a season, only lasts from the Winter Solstice in December until the Spring or Vernal Equinox in March. But Old Man Winter rarely goes by the rules, which means that here in Michigan it can snow anywhere from September until May. And snow is what we usually associate with winter.
Actually some cultures have their own reckoning dates for winter. In Scandinavian tradition, winter begins on October 14 and ends on the last day of February. In the Russian calendar, winter begins on December 1 and also ends on the last day of February.
The word “winter” comes from the Indo-European root word “wend,’ relating to water. In our case, it is usually frozen water, otherwise known as snow. And while the theory that the Inuit language has an unusually large number of words for snow has now become a cliché, Michiganders know that snow occurs in many forms, and we have seen a lot of it so far this winter.
The ecological reckoning of winter is a bit different from calendar-based winter. It is one of six seasons, not four, and is called hibernal. (The other five are prevernal, vernal, estival, serotinal, and autumnal). Hibernal calls to mind the “biological dormancy” of certain creatures and plants during the coldest, darkest period of the year.
As we work our way through one of the earlier onsets of consistently cold temperatures in recent memory, it worth noting that there have been winters of record. 1816 is termed “The Year without a Summer” in the Northern Hemisphere. It was primarily due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in April of 1815. The winter of 1887-1888 was particularly hard, with record cold temperatures in the Upper Midwest, heavy snowfalls worldwide and two notable blizzards, including the Great Blizzard of 1888.
Two common personifications of winter, with all due respect to Disney’s Frozen, are Old Man Winter and Jack Frost. Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind, was considered the bringer of winter and the cold. Artistic representations of Old Man Winter retain somewhat the short-tempered, severe personality of Boreas.
Jack Frost, on the other hand, has been in popular culture since the 1700s. He is typically seen as a mischievous boy who “bites the noses” of people to give them a chill. His name may or may not have originated with Russia’s Santa Claus character, Father Frost.
In Norse mythology, Ullr, the god of winter, rules Asgard in Odin’s absence. The son of a frost giant, he is reputed to have created the northern lights to compensate for the shortened amount of daylight.
Winter is cold. Winter is dark. Snow and ice can be dangerous. But there is also much beauty to be found in winter. The pristine new fallen snow. The patterns of frosty windowpanes. The stunningly clear blue sky on a single-digit day. It’s winter and it’s here to stay.
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