Frost matches snow for its ability to purify countryside and town. Like most people, I love the snow – the first real snow of the season is a source of great excitement. Those people who tell you they hate it can just go and suck a snowball. It is a wondrous garment for the earth to wear. No less beautiful, however, is the palette of Jack McFrost. Here, in the north of Britain, a frosty day draws us closer to our North Atlantic neighbours. In fact, Jack Frost is believed to have originated in Scandinavia. The Norse god of the winds, Kari, had a son who went by the two names of Jokul, meaning icicle, and Frosti, meaning frost. In the nineteenth century, when reading material was becoming easily available, Jack Frost was seen in books as a sprightly elf – able to slip under doors, between cracks and through badly fitting window frames. A couple of winters ago we had fern frost, known as “Jack Frost’s Garden”, on the car and, occasionally, on the attic windows. The beautiful patterns are impossible to represent in art. I hadn’t seen such fern-frosted beauty since I was a small child living in an old cottage in North Lincolnshire – when, in severe winters, I had to move out of my very cold bedroom above the wash-house, into my little brother’s cold bedroom above the living room/kitchen/dining room. Our parents had their bedroom above the “best room” which was only heated at Christmas and so, I suppose, came somewhere in between the other two bedrooms. In those days Jack Frost was our artist in residence for the winter – he couldn’t resist our wobbly windows.
Other childhood memories of frosty times include the hard-as-iron ruts in the lane which ran past our front door. They were so hard that, should you take a tumble, you would need a sticking plaster. I remember well picking our way between the ruts on the journey home from school – noses stinging from the cold, our breath steaming ahead of us, with pale baby blue and pink skies all around – there is nowhere in Britain can match the all enveloping skies of the Lincolnshire lowlands. Rudyard Kipling, in “A Fenland Carol”, makes note of the importance of the frost in the year’s cycle:
“Our Lord who did the Ox command
To kneel to Judah’s King,
He binds His frost upon the land
To ripen it for Spring. . . . ”
It is a striking thing to hear the mistle thrush sing his territorial song from the topmost branch of the sycamore when all around him has been bitten by frost and evergreens have a rime of crystals. Garden visits are rare at this time of the year, other than the daily feeding and watering of our garden birds or perhaps gathering snippings of evergreens for the Christmas table, but it is a treasure hunt to find the bulbs sending up their small spikes of eau de nil and then finding an early snowdrop bud has an excitement all its own.
We still complain when the incidence of colds, flu and tummy bugs increases in a mild winter, sure that a winter of sharp frosts will kill the germs which upset our health. There may well be truth in that – if the suggestion that putting a fluffy toy, bought in a car boot sale, into the domestic freezer overnight, will render it safe for Baby to cuddle, is correct.
When Jack Frost goes on his Mediterranean holidays the citrus farmers are ready for him. He doesn’t visit often but, if they didn’t set up their gas heaters in readiness, they could potentially lose their crops. Nearer home, on the River Thames, Frost Fairs were frequently held, when the water froze, between 1607/8 and 1813/14. When ice appeared on the River Thames after this it was too rough and bumpy but also never freezing as hard as was necessary for games to take place. So Jack Frost of Norse tales, Father Frost from Russia and the German Old Mother Frost seem to thwart plans to have fun in frosty weather conditions. They can’t prevent us from enjoying their mischief however. Thomas Hardy weaves me into his poem “The Darkling Thrush” with the first verse – although the entire poem of only four stanzas grips the reader and makes a shiver run through the spine.
(verse 1 )
“I leaned upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings from broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.”
On many walks – just after Christmas or early in the New Year, I have leant on a gate or a stile and breathed in deeply while the frost made every part of me tingle with a clean new start. Rather like the fluffy toy from the car boot sale, I feel as if I have been cleansed and stand ready for action – ready to adopt the new-born year. Jack McFrost has coaxed me, by his very majesty, to slough off my winter sloth.
In the garden, when the snowdrops, aconites, jasmine and witch-hazel are in flower, Something – greater than you or me – will uncork champagne over the lot, making a sparkling cocktail of it all. Francis Brett Young put it so simply yet so precisely right :
“The robin on my lawn
He was the first to tell
How, in the frozen dawn,
This miracle befell . . . . .”
If Robert Bridges was right to describe snow has having the ability to make unevenness even, then I will suggest that frost is empowered to paint with magic those familiar sights we so often take for granted. Here we have a new year to look afresh at every little thing. I hope that it will be the “Best of Times” .