When Does Winter Begin?


When I was growing up in Minnesota, I always knew when winter began: it was consistently cold from one day to the next, all the leaves had fallen from the trees, and it was snowing. Sometimes winter came late, after a long Indian summer, other years it came early. But whenever it arrived, I knew that it had. Likewise, I always knew when it was spring: the snow and ice were melting and not being replaced, the crocus and pussy willows were blooming, and the air was balmy enough that, walking home from school, I could take off my heavy winter coat and sling it over my shoulder.

Thus it was with mild surprise that, when I looked at my calendar this morning, I noticed that today, December 21st, is notated as the first day of winter. Surprise, because to me, winter has already begun. It began several weeks ago, when Buffalo, NY, was buried under several feet of snow, for example. So I wondered, when did it happen that the shortest day of the year (the longest night), which we used to call “the dead of winter,” become the official first day of winter?

I suspect that it has to do with the fashion for hyper-rationalizing everything, for making everything conform to standards of objective measurement and pseudo-scientific certainty. Systematizing cannot tolerate the idea that anything, even the cycle of the seasons, might be uncertain, subjective, or irregular. Even Nature must be ruled (dominated, measured), must be seen to be ruled even when it refuses to be, even when it reminds us that it rules us–not the other way around. This fashion leads to rather silly manifestations, such as the “meteorologist” on the local news broadcast, who, after itemizing the inches or feet of snow in the “service area,” and reporting the number of degrees below zero the temperature will be for the next week, concludes by saying, “And it’s still three weeks until the beginning of winter.” With a rather sheepish expression, as if he knew how silly that sounds.

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