One morning two weeks ago, we opened the curtains to find the garden sprinkled with a dusting of snow. By 8am, it was beginning to settle on the road and weigh heavily on the branches of the trees, and we were outside, wrapped-up, shuffling along the clean, white roads and footpaths near our house.
There is always something unexpected about snow, and we never grow-out of that excitement, with the accompanying child-like instinct to reach for our warmest jumpers, pull-on our gloves and hats, and get outside. Sometimes we call what we are doing ‘going for a walk’, but really, we are playing.
As we stomped through the snow towards our nearest park, we were the first to make footprints along the footpath, though soon others were outside too. Two school boys, on either side of the road, were throwing snowballs at each other, then cowering behind garden walls between volleys. At the park, a man was attempting to play fetch with a small, excited dog that seemed more interested in chasing its own tail in wide circles, head skimming the surface of the snow, than collecting the stick.
Snow is Christmassy, surely? And Christmas is supposed to be snowy, isn’t it?
It has been such a mild, wet autumn, the snow caught us completely by surprise. Of course, there were bound to have been forewarnings – the media never misses an opportunity to melodramatic articles about the weather – but 2020 has taught us that it’s usually best to avoid the news. We walked around the neighbourhood, marvelling at every frosted berry and snow-burdened branch as though we had never seen snow before.
Perhaps it should not have come as such a surprise. It is December, after all: our Christmas tree is twinkling gently in the corner of the living room, we have already devoured one batch of mince pies, and festive jingles accompany us around the supermarket.
Snow is Christmassy, surely?
And Christmas is supposed to be snowy, isn’t it?
Here in the UK, many of our favourite children’s Christmas films involve snowfall: both adaptations of Raymond Briggs’s Christmas picture books – The Snowman and Father Christmas – as well as most adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol portray Christmas against a backdrop of falling snowflakes. Christmas cards, advent calendars, wrapping paper: Even the ‘special edition’ festive packaging on products with no obvious relationship with Christmas – packets of crisps, packs of kitchen rolls and tubs of dairy spread – feature white landscapes, snowmen and icicles.
But the truth is, Christmas in the British Isles is only really snowy in our imaginations. Yet, here in the UK, we cling to the myth of the White Christmas because it seems to connect us to a lost past. The imaginary British White Christmas is a strange cocktail of influences: a wholesome, generous, heartfelt cultural identity that is at odds with the modern commercial reality. It is a combination of our collective memory, as well as cultural borrowing from countries where snowy Decembers are much more frequent: the northern states of the US, Scandinavia, Alpine Europe and Japan. The British White Christmas is an endless aspiration: a patchwork of all the best things about the season towards which we can dream, plan and hope.
Of course, for most of us snow is also a personal memory. My earliest memory of snow was in the winter of 1990/1991. I was four, rising five. I have a faint recollection of having already started school that year, so had already experienced a few short months of walking to school with my mother’s hand in mine on crisp cold mornings, my face glowing cherry red as the winter air pinched my cheeks.
Having since spent years as a teacher of very young children, I have often been blessed enough to see the moment when a child sees snow for the very first time: their faces lit up with wonder at the sight, and yet when I think of my own reaction (and that of my younger brother, who was about three at the time) it was decidedly different.
You would think that – having been born on a snowy day – I might have some sort of affinity with snow, but alas, this was not to be. There was something about this powdery white glitter that fell from the sky so slowly and nonchalantly that unnerved me. The muffled silence snow brings to the landscape gave the impression that it had somehow stolen all the sounds of the world. I also remember the horror of discovering that this fluffy-looking white stuff was wet – something that no Christmas film or children’s book had ever mentioned!
Concerned that my brother and I didn’t seem enthusiastic about the snow, our mother went out into the virgin snow alone to prove that snow was fun while we watched distrustfully from the dining room window. All alone, she rolled up snowballs and threw them about at invisible victims. Her gloved hands looked sodden and cold, but she kept smiling.
Then we watched amused as she constructed the feeblest excuse for a snowman. This was the year the British media declared England had “the wrong type of snow”: it was “powdery” and not… well, I am not sure – surely snow is snow? But it did seem to be proving hard for our mother to build her snowman. The snow just did not roll. Instead she sort-of pushed it all together, making a pyramid on the lawn. I don’t recall her making a spherical head: I think only got as far as the large spiked pyramid. By now she looked fed up: building snowmen, in the cold, on your own was obviously not as fun as she had thought.
I remember the horror of discovering that this fluffy-looking white stuff was wet – something that no Christmas film or children’s book had ever mentioned!
I am glad to say that 30 years on, I have a much healthier opinion of snow (so long as I am not forced to venture out to commute in it, I should add). Nothing delights more than waking to see the garden thick with settled snow, and so long as I am wrapped up warm, wearing boots with a good grip, I am outside in a flash. My own attempts at snowmen have been significantly more successful, proving that building snowmen is not a skill defined by genetics. My personal favourite was built sitting at a park bench, arms stretched out on the table, at London’s Welsh Harp Reservoir.
However, I have never really enjoyed getting my hands wet making snowballs, but have grown-out of my childhood fear of snowball fights. My last encounter was in the winter of 2010, when I woke in the night to find the world turned white. Eager to step outside, I left the house at 2am for a night-time snowy walk, only to find myself in a snow-bound woodland with a group of youths who would have normally terrified me. But snow brings such happiness and cheer that I stayed for a short snowball fight with them before returning home to my bed. This is the effect snow can have: bringing-out the childishness in all of us, and exemplifying the very best of the season.