There is undeniable magic about the first snow, especially in mid-February and in a climate where it is almost bound to be the last. Where I live now, it is so rare when the snow does not melt immediately. A week of freezing temperatures ensured that the magic stayed for days. The garden looked stunningly beautiful. I made the kids play outside in the street, so it stayed pristine and dreamlike for just a little longer.

There is a powerful sense of a special occasion, of it being a watershed and a threshold. More than the arbitrary new year on our civil calendar, it heralds a possibility of a fresh start, of muffling out the noise, of leaving behind, of cleansing, emerging pure and beginning again.

The snow coincided with the Chinese New Year and the first moon of the new lunar cycle. The Orthodox Church observes Candlemas on February 15 – one of the most important feasts in the Christian year. It celebrates the story of Mary entering the Temple for the first time since giving birth, to be cleansed and to present her newborn son to God. In the Temple, they meet a devout elder Simeon who holds Jesus up and calls him the Light of the World. Simeon waited for this moment all his (very, very) long life; he is ready to be released. “Let me now depart in peace, o Lord, for my eyes have seen your salvation”. It is a celebration of the mystical encounter of the Old and New, of purification and release. This year, the snow feels particularly full of symbolism.

I find it difficult to face spring without a white watershed like that. I am bothered by mild, uneventful, warm winters, the blurring of seasons. Last year we had our first and only (short and light) frost in mid-April. That felt wrong. During the decade that I have lived on the Dutch coast, I watched daffodils appear earlier and earlier in public spaces around town. This year, I saw my first one on the Orthodox Christmas day, January 7th, and I had to look away. It felt very wrong indeed, unnatural even for this climate. It is far too early to enjoy this sunshine yellowness. There has been no pause, no possibility for a break, no holding of breath. As our eyes need to rest on muted browns and grays, and on white, to prepare for the colour riot of the season to come, so our spirit needs to experience winter inertia before the force and exertions of spring. The snow and the freezing temperatures feel right to my Slavic soul.

As I look out from my window into the frozen, buried garden, I only see the magic for now. I do not (yet) think of the plants that will not survive this onslaught. I grow few tender plants, and most had been moved to the shed the day before temperatures plunged. Still, minus 10 for this long may be too much even for the ones labeled hardy. I should be particularly worried about fuchsia Lady Boothby, a vigorous and prolific climber, that was too large to move, and I should pray for my young acers, but for the moment I just hold my breath in awe.  

We were unable to reach the allotment and check the damage to the garden and the pipes there. The roads had not been cleared and it was too dangerous to drive or cycle. The “wait it out” attitude, which permeates all spheres of our life here, ensured that for a few days we were properly grounded, something not even the lockdowns could quite achieve.

Inevitably, we will go from minus 10 to plus 10 within a week. We will have to deal with terrible slush in the coming days, but it has been absolutely worth it, for “my eyes have seen” – the snow.  

Simeon celebrated Christ’s arrival and rejoiced at the final release from his waiting. We can now let the old year die at last, too. Fresh energy and new hopes are on their way.

4 thoughts on “A fresh start

  1. What beautiful pictures, and writing! I am completely with you on the necessary starkness of Winter, and the renewal allowed by this white page in between chapters. I wrote something four years ago about that, but not as well as you – the link with the presentation of Jesus to the Temple is so right. The Nunc Dimittis is one of my favourite prayers in the Bible – I used to sing it before going to bed many years ago. I feel I should teach it to my children now.
    A few years ago, I saw daffodils flowering in December (here in the UK), and felt just like you, very disturbed by that untimely appearance. The snow this year helps us feel right again, even though we shouldn’t be fooled into forgetting the way things are going with our climate…
    I remember, when my acers were younger, covering them with fleece. I don’t know if that helped (them). I don’t do that anymore.
    Your snow-covered Japanese lantern is absolutely beautiful.

    1. Thank you, dear Frog! Yes, that’s exactly it – “a white page in between chapters”, you said it better than I ever could! I would love to read your earlier post on this, is it on your blog? Please do send me a link (although “rummaging” through your site to search for it would be a treat in itself)! I find it very special that you too relate to the story of the old Simeon and have a personal relationship with Nunc Dimittis. It is a very, very fine prayer and so beautiful in Gregorian chant in particular, I find. And indeed, I also often feel I ought to “pass on” some things that are precious to me, to try and make my experiences live on through my children, but often it does not work like that, sadly. I can only offer something up and hold my breath to see if they make it their own and most of the time they are just busy forming their own memories, with other words and images (and perhaps prayers), hopefully as meaningful to them many years later as ours are to us.
      Thank you for noticing my Japanese lantern, I thought you might 🙂 I am glad it found its place in the garden before the snow, made it extra special. I so missed my pilgrimages to the Japanese garden here in the Hague last year. It remained close due to Covid. I sneaked in to take some pictures when the snow just started falling. And I am so relieved that the lantern at home is not a constant reminder of my failed trip to Japan…

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