Why the bleakest season is the most beautiful

Winter gets something of a bad rap. It is not particularly difficult to see why: winter has none of the renewal of spring, the flourishing and passion of summer, the pleasant melancholy of autumn. It is a dead season, and death is always at least slightly uncomfortable for the living. I know of no poem that opens, “Shall I compare thee to a winter’s day?” and, if there is such a poem, it was certainly written after the breakup. For winter is not a season designed for the comfort of humanity. It is a manifestation of nature’s hostility to man. All the hats and scarves and mittens and gloves and coats and extra layers remind us that we are not able to get by as we are. Instead, we have to take precautions to protect us against the cold of nature’s cruelty, and by so doing mitigate the pain the cold tries to force on us.

And so winter is the season of cold, pain, and misery. Not a particularly ringing endorsement, that. But to leave the matter there would be to neglect winter’s greatest gift: snow. Every bored child in some interminably long class has been right to look out the window and yell “Snow!” when he first sees it, and everyone else in the class has been right, upon hearing that shout, to rush to the windows and watch the flakes fall from the sky. Childlike joy is the correct response to snow, for snow is a kind and joyful form of precipitation. It lacks the dampness and dreariness of rain, which, no matter how gentle, cannot help but hearken back to the rain which flooded the earth in the days of Noah. Nor does it have the pelting destructive force of hail. I have little to say about what we charmingly call a “wintry mix,” other than that snow is its purified form, lacking the less ideal parts of the mix.

What, exactly, snow is — besides some form of water — and how it forms is a question I leave to the scientists. More important is what it does. It is a blanket that falls from heaven and cloaks the earth in itself. Christ said that God sends rain on the just and on the unjust: snow has that same universality, which manifests itself in the way that snow covers everything on which it falls. Joyce knew it, which is why the greatest short story in English ends, “His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” The universality of snow expands beyond the physical: the snow covers not just the earth, but all the living and the dead as it descends.

Snow is white. White is, most of all, the color that symbolizes innocence and purity. David told the Lord “wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” Snow itself cannot wash, but it can cover up, and everything it covers becomes, at first, a shimmering and glittering white. As the antihero of Camus’s ­­The Fall declares, having earlier explained that the sky is full of doves that wish to come down to earth but have no place to land, “Look, it’s snowing!… It must be the doves, surely….What an invasion! Let’s hope they are bringing good news. Everyone will be saved, eh? — and not only the elect.” The snow is a lost innocence, and while it cannot restore that innocence to the world, it can, at least for a moment, make the world appear innocent again.

There are, on occasion, clear winter nights right after it has snowed. No snowplows, no tire tracks, no footprints, human or animal, have yet disturbed the silent snow, nor does anything disturb the silence of the night. On such a night, you can go outside and look around. Above, in those parts of the world unaffected by the scourge of light pollution, are the Moon, perhaps, stars, tens and hundreds and, if you let your eyes adjust to the night, thousands of stars against the sky, each one shining and twinkling in its place, and you almost feel that the heavens, and perhaps Heaven itself, have come close to Earth, so close that you could reach out and touch them, if you wanted to. And if you look around you, you can see all kinds of things, everything, really — houses, perhaps, and lampposts, and trees with limbs weighed down, and bushes, and maybe a road, and the ground itself, with all its rises and falls, covered in snow, cloaked in innocence. Heaven come to Earth, and an innocent world: it is as if you had by some furtive means entered Eden, evading the angel guards and their flaming sword. But this is a fallen world, and so the cold you feel on your cheeks reminds you that you are not at home here. It tells you that, while you may have found the earthly paradise, while you may have seen things too beautiful to describe, you cannot stay here. You must go, and what you have seen must become merely a memory, merely a dream.

Steve Larkin is a sophomore from Maine majoring in mathematics and classics. The only things he loves more than scratching out his opinions are the winter nights he describes. Steve can be contacted at slarkin@nd.edu.