Late March and we are still buried in snow here. A March snowfall is not unusual in the American Midwest, but it is usually an unexpected freak of a thing, coming after some lovely springlike days, covering banks of yellow and purple crocus and stands of glowing daffodils. This year we have had none of that. Rather we have had unrelenting cold and gray days and now two major snowfalls in March, this last setting the record for a one-day event.
All of which has led to many references by newscasters and local weather personalities to ‘the winter that just won’t quit’ or ‘the winter that won’t go away.’ It seems a fitting appellation, but I wonder if we know how much cultural perception there is in the idea of winter ‘going away?’ When the seasons change, does one season go away, to be replaced by the next? Actually, seasonal change is mostly incremental. Some people who study this say that it is all a continuum. Scientists, for instance, usually only speak of the extremes, winter and summer, cold and hot, with everything else just a passage between them. But as humans we have a need to segment large swaths of reality to make it more manageable to our limited and easily fooled powers of perception. Landscape, which is also a continuum, becomes forest and field, valley and hill, river and bank, and we are more comfortable seeing things that way.
One of the earliest trends in human culture was to not only strictly segment the seasons, but to personify, even deify them. An example of this comes in the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC–AD 17/18). In the story of Phaeton and his quest to prove that he is the child of the sun god Phoebus, Phaeton seeks out his father’s palace. There he sees many wonders, such as the Day, Month and Year all personified. And–
Stood Spring; and naked Summer, wreathed with stalks
of grain; and Autumn, stained with trodden grapes;
and glacial Winter, with his stiff white locks.
For a long time in the history of Western Civilization–particularly European history–the seasons were portrayed either as deities or as persons. Summer tended to be a married couple either tilling their fields or raising children. Autumn was almost always people involved in the harvest, usually of grain or grapes. In paintings, in home decor, on calendars, in poetry, and even in music, when artists and artisans wanted to show the seasons they were usually represented by these standard, anthropomorphic motifs.
This all changed in the New World, particularly in the United States, though nobody is sure why. Some think it’s because of our more intense natural seasons: winter is colder, summer is hotter, spring more gloriously beautiful, and autumn!–well, autumn in America is so thrilling in its multicolored glory that we had to have a second name for it: fall, which is a shortening of the archaic term ‘fall of the leaf.’ So our representations of the seasons have tended to depict natural scenes, not abstract deities or persons. But of course most of Europe is covered in deciduous trees which change color in autumn, and people from Greece to England see the natural changes in their own homelands as stark and varied. Another theory is that our Puritan forebears found the need to purge our national ethos of these vestiges of pagan religion. This goal has been less than successful, given Christmas and Easter observances that are imbued with multiple pagan symbols, and a Halloween which is little more than a pagan Celtic harvest celebration. But at least we have cleared the ancient deities out of our seasonal art and mythology.
This is kind of a shame. When we talk about a winter that won’t go away, it might be helpful for it to have a face, a stubborn old man with ‘stiff white locks’ who refuses to leave and make way for flower-crowned spring. If there’s anyone from that ancient pantheon who deserves the heave-ho right about now, it’s that guy.