When I was a child, on a mid winter’s night, my father lifted me, still half asleep, from my bed and carried me to the window. What I saw through the clear pane was a thing more magical than I had ever seen before. The snow was still falling, each flake wide as a fairy’s mantle, dancing and fluttering in slow descent. Our trees stooped handsomely under satin white cloaks, their bows low and heavy, their brittle fronds casting off gathering flakes like dark-gloved fingers of witches.
I recall being conscious of an immense stillness. The world outside had transformed beyond my knowing it, without a whisper to draw attention to its silent metamorphosis. To me this was more wondrous even than a glimpse of the fairies who lived in the moss between the garden terraces. I knew my eyes would never tire of this pure white fantasy; but soon, sleepy-eyed and happy, I was returned to my bed.
In the morning it was still snowing and it snowed for two days. It snowed thickly right across the city, right across the Orange Free State, across almost the entire Highveld. This was the big snowfall of 1964.
In the late winter of last year, several inches of snow fell in the village of Clarens. Our picture this week shows Clarens in the declining light, blanketed in snow, a view from below Lake Clarens to beyond the first houses.
A few months ago, perhaps enthused by the snowfall of last year, the town organised a Christmas in July event for the last weekend of the winter school holidays, in slim hope of a coinciding snowfall. Having lived in England for nearly a decade, I still find myself associating the Christmas season with flurries of snow, darkness falling by four in the afternoons, freshly rolled snowmen in red Father Christmas gowns and hoods, resplendent on whitened park lawns under festive Christmas lights.
So, where does this inseparable fusion with Christmas and snow come from? The festival is, after all, a celebration of the newborn baby Jesus, of Nazareth, whose birth place would not at all have resembled the white wintry scenes on traditional Christmas cards.
Rome, when it conquered much of Europe, did so with a sword in its hand and the Christian message on its lips. Control over its empires and cooperation by its subjects were essential to Rome’s empirical success, and their policy of the Christianisation of foreign populations largely achieved this. The widespread authority of Rome, together with the benefit of Greek scholastic supremacy, had already brought much of the northern and eastern Mediterranean areas under the Christian umbrella; but the northern and western European countries were much harder nuts to crack, thus becoming the last to fall under the influence of Rome and the last to be converted, leaving their cultural identities indelibly imprinted on Christian traditions.
The indigenous peoples of the northern and western Germanic and Scandinavian territories continued to be deeply rooted in pagan beliefs and worship long after the rest of Europe had been ‘tamed’. The British Isles resisted Roman authority doggedly during their first century of occupation and continued to uphold their pagan practices, particularly in the far north and west, where Roman intervention was repelled aggressively for much longer. It became clear to Rome and later to the Roman Church that, in order to successfully introduce Christianity as the national religious practice of the peoples, it would be necessary to subtly combine pagan practices and festivals with those of Christianity.
The winter solstice was celebrated widely in Europe on 25 December, prior to the later calendar adjustment. It was a pagan festival of great significance that marked the passing of the longest night and the lengthening of the days, giving rise to the growing fertility of the earth as it moved towards summer abundance. The celebration of the birth of Jesus, originally associated with a date in early January, was tagged to this existing festival.
Tree worshiping was a common pagan practice in Europe, particularly in the northern Germanic areas. Later, after the introduction of Christianity, trees continued to feature in religious activities and were decorated with apples, to represent the forbidden fruit, and with wafers, to represent the redemption. The apples and wafers were later replaced by shiny red balls and other decorations, and the trees were brought indoors.
In pagan Scandinavia the Yule was a period of twelve days, starting on the day of the winter solstice. After the long cold darkness of the northern countries, the prospect of the coming summer gave rise to a substantial holiday festival. The Yule has subsequently become our Yuletide, also known as the Twelve Days of Christmas, starting on Christmas Eve, when the Christmas tree is traditionally decorated, and ending twelve days later, when the decorations are removed.
The foundations of our modern Christmas celebrations and traditions were established in settings that were invariably blanketed in snow and gave more credence to pagan interests than to Christian principles. The synthesis of Christmas and snow, and trees, is so ingrained in our collective cultural psyche that we feel ‘short-changed’ if one or other is left out of the equation. Since we don’t have snow here in South Africa in December, we go to great lengths to ensure that snow clad and brightly decorated trees adorn our living rooms and shops.
Yet a typical South African Christmas, with warm weather and star filled nights, is probably more closely allied to the conditions around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth than the conditions we aspire to at Christmas and try to recreate.
The picture insert features in the 2014 calendar produced by and sold in aid of Cluny Animal Trust. Calendars can be purchased at Clarens Gallery, Clementines Restaurant and the Old Stone Bottle Store, in Clarens. Alternatively they can be ordered from Katherine on 0827886287, Jan on 0782462553, Helen on 0582230918 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Article and photograph by Mary Walker
Clarens News: November 2013
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