White Christmas

I hope that most of you know that Keene is a college town.  Or, at least, what a college town used to be – temporary. Its life flows away when school is out, leaving behind little but the true natives.  It becomes truly quiet in a way that a real town can never be; it is because the gods love Persephone that they mourn her when she’s gone.

Well, Persephone is gone, in my metaphorical sense and in the original Greek idea. Keene is both empty and cold.

Now, anyone with a connection to Keene knows by now that it snowed on Christmas eve, and the stuff was still down on Christmas morning. But here’s the thing: I have this terrible feeling that I did it. Not in the “I accidentally mixed too much eye-of-newt in with my dragon’s-tongue” sort of way, but in the “I always kind of really, really wanted a white Christmas” sort of way.

Western Civilization has come to us by way of some terribly cold countries. It may have learned to walk in sunny Athens and Rome, but it had to spend an awful lot of time huddled over fires in Stockholm and Edinburgh.  The houses we tend to build are built for warmth – sturdy squares with vaulted roofs to let the snow shuffle off.  Our dress clothes are variations on the warm, layered suits of the 18th century. But Christmas is our civilization’s greatest cultural link to the true cold of Europe. It was only ever nominally about Christ’s birth; it was always about keeping your sanity in the worst of it, a little bit of light in the irreconcilable dark of late December.

All of this is maddeningly out of place in Texas.  The worst thing is that for the most part, we maintain the illusion, still feel the phantom limb of snow and cold.  We have moved on in someways, of course.  Texans pioneered a new sort of dress that shed the heavy vests and coats that the Victorians – and most Americans – still wore. They built flat-roofed houses with open spaces that let the breeze in.  But even in such a hot country, no fair-weather reform ever became universal.  Houston oil executives can wear three-piece wool suits in July, and our mass-produced houses are more often vault-topped Nordic boxes than flat prairie dog-runs.  And somebody will always have an inflatable snowman on their front lawn at Christmas time.

I hope you have some idea of how frustrating all of this was for me growing up in San Antonio.  I have always been a sucker for the trappings of civilization: I hadn’t yet read Homer and Shakespeare, but I loved them all the same. And I felt that I was the only one being left out in the warm, while the rest of the world had snowball fights and skated on frozen ponds. I loved the movies, the cartoons, the songs, all of which showed me pristine whitened worlds in which snow was a sacrament of Secular Christmas.

I yearned for a White Christmas.  I could have done without Santa Clause and the decorations if it would just, for once, oh please, oh please, if only it would snow. It got close a couple of times, but the persistent failure of the dry, Texan grass and chilled Cacti to transform into a winter wonderland produced what may well have been the one searing resentment of my childhood.

Well, it couldn’t last. I got older, and I made my peace with Texas’ stubborn warm shoulder.  I got an idea of winter in other places – Colorado, Britain – and moved on with my life. Soon I’d forgotten I had ever dreamed of a white Christmas.

And then – this is the strangest thing, I still can’t believe it – it happened. I heard another cold front was coming. Bad weather too – probably most of it to the east. And then strange words were thrown around, words that almost cracked through the ice that all those years had formed around my childish hope – snow, winter storm, one to two inches. My subconscious kept it mostly hidden underneath, but I was fighting the old battles somewhere.

And then I woke up. It was Christmas Eve. And it was confirmed – a lot of snow, coming right for us. It snowed all day, and I could just sit at the window and watch as it slowly began to pile up – first on the roofs, then trees and bushes, finally covering up the grass.  So I did what I had to, to save my sanity. I didn’t respond as a child.  I responded as a man of the Internet, trained in the basics of Journalism. I grabbed a camera.  And I went out into it, to see the things I knew were there, but see how they had changed. I went to see the places I knew, and not know them; because Keene would be white, I would be visiting it for the first time.  Keene would belong to the imagined northern homeland of Christmas.

I had never seen Christmas decorations in the snow before. It was a revelation. Suddenly, they seemed to fall into place – everything had been there but the canvas, the background. And now, it was a complete picture. I found a wire frame of Texas on some one’s lawn, lit up with the words, “Merry Christmas, Y’all”. And it was standing in the perfect white of the snow. It was so beautiful I could hardly stand to look at it. Another person had written, “Happy B-day, Jesus” in the gathered ice on the back of their car. Perfect.

And then something else happened, something I hadn’t expected, and wasn’t prepared for. It became normal. I became bored with it.  There wasn’t anything particularly odd or interesting about snow.  It just was. It’s a fact of life, of weather, of the world. And it wasn’t long before I thought that it was better, after all, to live in a mostly warm place – perhaps even a very hot place – than to live under snow for half the year. But perhaps that was merely a reaction.

It’s all gone now, although little clumps in shaded gullies stayed for quite a while. But that doesn’t change the fact – we, we Texans, we who have to weather such vicious summers, and never see the snow – we had a white Christmas. And in case you were wondering why, I think it was me. So be careful what you wish for.


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