Thursday, December 01, 2005

Surprised by Snow

Yesterday was St. Andrew's Day, which we have arbitrarily chosen to be the first day of our family's Christmas season. Well, not entirely arbitrarily; we like the excuse to make and eat shepherd's pie and put on some Scottish Christmas music, after all. But mostly it's a good day to get out all the Christmas decorations and go crazy putting everything up at once, which we seem to prefer to spreading it out over several days. Then it's December 1, and the kids get to fight over who opens the first door on the advent calendar or who gets to light the advent candle for the first time, and we're up and running. Well, that's exactly what we did last night, and it was good fun; we were all set for the morning. Then I woke up to find that about 4 inches of snow had fallen overnight. I got out the snow shovel (the first time I've needed to in over three years--that's what living in the South will do for you) and shoveled the driveway, pausing to look occasionally across the cornfields and lawns around our home, now covered in white. It was hard work; the shovel felt clumsy and unfamiliar in my hands. I couldn't have been happier.

Why? Well, it was just that our family celebrations had gotten off to a good start, partly; we've had our share of November 30th catastrophes too. But I think, mostly, it was the snow. I've missed it, especially around Christmastime. It's not necessary, of course, but like a lot of Americans, the cultural images of Christmas and its traditions that have mostly shaped my consciousness of the holiday are thoroughly north European--if not strictly New England--in origin; that is, Christmas always makes me think about the winter weather and the retreat within, about getting close to home and hearth. And while that's by no means the only mode of thought appropriate to the holiday, it is one that fits it well: winters can be hard, but their beauty is often sublime, thus leading to a sense of hiding oneself way alongside a wonderment at the changed world all around. And doesn't that express the meaning of the season well? A weary couple in an out-of-the-way stable, yet overwhelmed by the world opened up to them. The celebration of something weak yet transformative at the same time.

Snow is silent; it can be forecast, but it doesn't announce itself as it falls, and once it's there on the ground it muffles the rest of the world. Sure, there's the bad road conditions and the accidents (I saw two cars off the side of the road while riding the bus to work this morning). And on the fun side, there's the skiing and ice skating and sledding (speaking of which, we need to buy a sled--with our children having been born and raised in Virginia, then, Mississippi, then Arkansas, we've never really had a need before). But like every season, the winter also has it's quiet side as well--and because the winter is darker, and often harder to endure, its silence perhaps looms even larger, in our imagination as well as reality. It can be haunting, as well as humbling. The idea that our loud and busy world can be rendered slow and silent and dark, and that yet in the midst of such there is a birth, a gift, a little thing--a present under a tree, perhaps--that will nonetheless illuminate it and make it all seem alive again . . . . well, again, I'm not saying that you can't grasp Christmas if it isn't wintertime where you live. But for me, it certainly helps.

I have no idea what Hannah Arendt thought of Christianity as a set of religious claims, but I like what she said about how Christianity--and perhaps in particular the Christmas story--can illuminate the nature of our existence: it teaches us about freedom. "Man does not possess freedom so much as he, or better his coming into the world, is equated with the appearance of freedom in the universe; man is free because he is a beginning . . . In the birth of each man, this initial beginning is reaffirmed, because in each instance something new comes into an already existing world which will continue to exist after each individual's death. . . . [Such freedom is a "miracle], namely, interruptions of some natural series of events, of some automatic process, in whose context they constitute the wholly unexpected" ("What is Freedom," Between Past and Future, pgs. 167-168).

Snow, of course, is an "automatic process"; it's just one of those meteorological things the world gives us. But in another sense, snow is interruptive and always unexpected; it breaks into our routines, makes us break out the snow boots and shovels, requires (and invites) us to put ourselves out into it, while at the same time making us wish to hide away and hoard what we have. It can be, in other words, part of a story and sensibility that makes us think not about the ends of our actions, but about the actions themselves: how small they are, and yet how meaningful. And, more importantly, about the correspondence between exactly those two: the tiny beginning, the baby's cry, the turn of the calendar on the darkest day of the year, the surprise of a snowdrift outside your window--and the way it is the very fact of such possibilities and opportunities (for work, for learning, for forgiveness and loving) which makes us all free.

1 comment:

Hellmut said...

Beautiful post, Russell, on many levels.

Transforming our environment snow invigorates our lifes by disrupting daily routines and forcing us to reevaluate our situation. That is inherently satisfying.

Especially when you live in a world where you know that you won't run out of food during the winter. 

Posted by Hellmut Lotz