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Being the coldest season of the year, winter comes between autumn and spring and is characterized by shorter day hours and longer night hours. The name winter comes from old Germanic and means ‘time of water”, referring to the rain and snow that falls during this time.
In the Northern hemisphere, winter falls between the shortest day of the year, also known as the Winter Solstice (late December) and the Vernal Equinox (late March) which has equal hours for both day and night. In the Southern hemisphere, however, winter falls between late June and late September.
During this season, and especially in middle and high altitudes, trees have no leaves, nothing grows, and some animals are in hibernation.
Symbolism of Winter
The Winter season is characterized by several symbolic meanings all centered on cold, darkness, and despair.
- Cold – This very obvious symbolic meaning derives from the low temperatures of the winter seasons. In some areas of the Northern hemisphere, the temperature goes as low as -89 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, winter symbolizes coldness and harshness, and is often used as a metaphor for a cold person or thing.
- Dark –There isn’t much action in the natural world, and the nights are longer than days. Even during the day, there is very little light. Winter, therefore, is seen to be a representation of silent, dark times.
- Despair – The origin of this symbolic meaning is twofold. Firstly, winter is seen to represent despair because of the cold, the darkness, and the scarcity of food that is characteristic of the season. Secondly, despair during wintertime is brought forth in the Greek myth of the birth of the seasons. It’s during this time that Demeter was desperately searching for her daughter Persephone, who was hidden in the underworld.
- Dormancy – This symbolic meaning derives from the state of life during the winter season. During this time, trees have no leaves, nothing grows, and there are no flowers in sight. In the animal kingdom, many animals are in hibernation, while others are hunkering down, feeding on what they collected during autumn. In a nutshell, nature is dormant, eagerly waiting for spring so that it can come to life.
- Loneliness – This symbolic meaning of winter is closely related to dormancy. During this time, animals are too cold to mate, and humans are often too cold to get out and socialize. There is a sense of loneliness in the air, which is the complete opposite of summertime, when everyone socializes and explores the world.
- Survival – This symbolic meaning derives from the hardships that the winter season presents. Winter represents hardship and tough times, requiring resilience from those who are to survive. At the end of winter, only the most prepared and the toughest emerge as survivors.
- The End of Life – Winter is often used to symbolize the end of life, the final chapter of a story. The phrase,
Symbolic Use of Winter in Literature
The reference to winter in literature is not all gloom. It can be used to symbolize hopelessness as well as to teach a lesson in preparedness, patience, and hope.
While winter can be lonely and represent despair, it’s also the season before spring, a time of new beginnings, hope, joy. As Percy Bysshe Shelly so eloquently writes in Ode to the West Wind, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”.
Symbolic Use of Winter in Spirituality
Winter is seen to symbolize a period of quiet reflection. This is the time to observe self – consciousness and ensure that your darkness does not overpower your growth potential. Winter is a period of self-reflection and preparation for new beginnings ahead.
Symbols of Winter
Winter is represented by several symbols, including snow, Christmas tree, snowflakes, pine, mistletoe, and the colors red and white.
- Snow – Snow is an obvious representation of winter derived from the condensed water that falls in the form of powder during wintertime.
- Snowflakes – During the season, snowflakes that appear as beautiful crystals will often be seen hanging on structures and plants, especially on the very coldest of days.
- Fir, Pines, and Holly Plants – While other vegetation dies off, these tend to survive and even remain green throughout the season.
- Mistletoe – Mistletoe, a parasitic plant that does not wither in winter, is also seen as a representation of the season. Though it’s poisonous, mistletoe serves as a food source for birds and animals during winter. According to tradition, if two people find themselves under mistletoe, they should kiss.
- Christmas Tree – Christmas day is marked on the 25th of December which is within wintertime in the Northern hemisphere. The sighting of these beautifully decorated trees every December has caused them to be associated with winter.
- Candles and Fire – Candles and fire are used in winter to symbolize the return of warmer and brighter days. The burning of candles and lighting of fire was originally practiced by Romans in the midwinter festival to celebrate their god Saturn but was later adopted by Christians who burn them during Advent and by Jews during Hanukkah.
- Red and White Colors – Red and white are a representation of winter because of the red flowers of plants like camellia and winter berries, and the color of snow respectively. These colors have been adopted as the colors of Christmas.
Folklore and Festivities of Winter
In Norse mythology, a juul log was burnt during the Winter Solstice in celebration of Thor the god of thunder. The ashes obtained from the burning of juul logs were said to protect the people from lightning as well as bring fertility to the soil.
Ancient Celtic druids introduced the custom of hanging mistletoe in houses during the winter solstice. They believed that it had mystical powers which, if activated at that point in time, would bring love and good luck.
Italian folklore tells of the famous winter witch called La Befana who flies around on her broom delivering presents to well-mannered children and giving coal to naughty children.
Japanese mythology tells of the oshiroi baba, snow hags from the winter mountain who came down from mountains on very cold winters wearing tattered kimonos to bring reviving drinks to anyone in need of warmth.
Ancient Persians hold the festival of Yalda at the end of winter to celebrate the victory of light and darkness. This ceremony is characterized by the gathering of families, burning of candles, reading of poetry, and a feast of fruits.
The Winter season can be a disheartening time of year, especially with the cold and darkness. However, many cultures and traditions see this as a time for reflection and giving back to society. Festivals celebrated around this time focus on extending a helping hand to children and the poor.