In the Bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, sno-ow on snow.
In the bleak midwinter
This is one of my favourite carols - the last verse expresses pretty what Christmas is all about. However, I’ve always had to suspend disbelief when singing the first verse, because I’m pretty sure that nobody’s ever skated on Lake Galilee, and I don’t think many drivers in Jerusalem bother to carry de-icers. I also find it pretty hard to imagine that the shepherds were digging their sheep out of a few feet of snow when the angels appeared. I’ve also had to use my imagination, because I’ve never really known a winter when snow fell on snow. My childhood winters were happily punctuated with occasional snowfalls, but it never stayed longer than a week or two.
Maybe British winters were different in the pre-global warming world the composer was writing in. Or maybe she had visited Russia - where the earth has been hard as iron since new year, and the brave ducks of Petrozavodsk are surviving on an ever-shrinking opening at the fastest flowing part of the river, the only bit yet to turn to stone. Here, snow has fallen on snow, on snow, on snow… it’s everywhere - the whole region is covered in perfect powder. Shame there aren’t any mountains.
However, the Russian midwinter is far from bleak. It’s brilliant. Every day the snow glistens in the sun, which slides through a crisp blue sky not far above the horizon. The feeling when -20 degrees air grips your face in the morning is exhilarating, even if I can’t breathe it in without coughing! The city has come to life - it was such a dreary place in December, when everything seemed grey and dilapidated. Now there are people everywhere enjoying all that winter has to offer. Couples walk together “touching gloves” - you can’t really hold hands in winter mittens. Determined fisherman drill holes in the metre-thick ice. Babushkas and Dyedushkas (Grandmas and Grandpas) totter about in fantastic fur hats. Children pour water down hills, creating ice-slides which they descend on their bums, backs, fronts and, if they are really daring, feet. Students go cross-country skiing in their PE lessons, and skating rinks are packed. Long suffering cars (and their drivers) are given some respite from their never-ending battle with potholes - snow and ice has filled all but the deepest gashes. And, after an hour or so out in the cold, it’s impossible not to love the feeling of coming in to a warm flat, taking off your outer layers and sitting down to a cup of steaming tea.
Beauty is everywhere - enormous icicles can make even the grimmest Soviet architecture aesthetically pleasing. Ice makes intriguing patterns on windows. Frost twinkles on the branches of leafless trees, while the boughs of evergreens sag under a foot of snow. Steam billows into the brilliant blue sky from chimneys at water-heating plants in every part of the city. At dawn and dusk the sky glows orange or red for an hour. And at night the stars are magnificent - I’ve never seen Orion looking so imposing, and the Milky Way is clearly visible if you get out of the city. Even people are more beautiful - in fur hats, coats, colourful scarves and winter boots, with cheeks turned rosy-pink by the cold.
Quite a few Russians told me last term that winter was their favourite season - I couldn’t understand why. For me, winter has always been dark, windy, wet, cold - a season for staying indoors. But real winter - Russian winter - is something else altogether. I love it.
This Lada's not going anywhere
Hardcore ducks in Petrozavodsk
Where I might learn to skate...
Standing on the lake