Wednesday, December 12, 2012

When Does it Feel Like Winter?

The thermometer tells me that winter is coming.  (Cue GoT music.)  The first snowfall has hit South Korea and its remnants still cause me to slip and slide everywhere.  Right now, my students and co-teachers are running around complaining about the cold and blasting the heat while I'm wondering what the fuss is about.  It's not really cold yet--just wait until late December/January/February.  I wonder what everyone will be saying then...

Being from NC, winter isn't as snowy and white as I'd like.  But it has its own subtle signs; frost on the windows in the morning when trying to start your car, slight icy patches on the road where the sun is absent, and of course, special edition holiday coffees at Starbucks.  For me, winter wasn't really winter until it read freezing or below on the thermometer, and I had a hot peppermint mocha to take away the chill.

You could always tell that Christmas was on its way, no matter if the weather cooperated or not.  Christmas decorations started appearing in stores, holiday music was piped in on speakers or over the radio, and Christmas-themed advertisements aired on TV.  Not to mention all the sales papers that fell out of the Sunday paper with a resounding thunk.

Yes, Christmas is more materialistic and commercial than it is about the people involved.  It's sad that more emphasis is placed on getting the best deal on Christmas presents after Thanksgiving than spending time with the people to whom you were going to give those presents.  And while I didn't grow up in a religious family, I still take time to remember who is the reason for the season, in my own quiet way.

In Korea, Christmas is a couples' holiday and largely absent of the hustle and bustle and celebration that precedes it back home.  There are Christmas trees and decorations you can buy, but the constant bombardment of music and advertising is largely absent here.  It's almost too quiet.

While I don't miss all the advertising noise, I do miss the little signs of what makes it Christmas and winter.  From my experience over the past few years in Korea, winter is very cruel mistress here.  Snow is more plentiful than what I am used to, and I can revel in the beauty of it.  But it's the "after" that makes it not so fun.


My mom always used to laugh when the first "snow" would hit my hometown growing up, joking that "Southerners don't know how to deal with snow.  Oh, gotta go buy all the bread and milk from the store because we'll be snowed in for five days!"  (We only ever got snowed in once in NC, that was in January 2000 when a record 18 inches fell.  I remember this snow very vividly as it caused my 16th birthday party to be cancelled.)  You see, my mom grew up living in Minnesota and northern Wisconsin for most of her life.  She had seen some amazing snowfalls and knew just how to deal with snow.  But she couldn't understand the people who lost their minds and ceased to remember how to drive or behave rationally when it snowed.  Every year (until its engine finally gave out and it was too costly to replace) my mom's trusty Saab Turbo 900 made the charge up the icy/snowy hill with ease while other neighbors were forced to abandon their cars at the bottom and walk the rest of the way home.  Mom 1, Snow 0.

In a way, I sometimes feel like when it comes to driving and acting like rational people in a snowfall, Koreans remind me very much of Southerners.  Instead of slowing their speed to a more reasonable level because of reduced visibility or slick spots, I've watched many people take the opposite approach and drive faster and more erratically.  Riding in the back of a taxi when it does that is not a ride you want to repeat.  In that situation I'd rather have control of my life in my hands!

Back home, winter always meant putting up the tree, cleaning out the ashes from last year's fires and stocking new wood, and baking, baking, baking.  I can't recall a single Sunday morning during the winter that I wouldn't wake up at home to the smell of something delicious being made.  My mom loves baking and cooking, and it is from her that I learned everything that has kept me from going hungry on my own in Korea.  I owe her a lot for that.

There are special cookies and treats my mom would make only when winter and the holidays rolled around. It included, but was not limited to: secret family recipe cut-out cookies, soft ginger molasses cookies, almond bark cookies, fudge, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, truffles, and potato pancakes.  

Some of my best memories of winter were of helping my mom make the goodies, then sitting down with a treat and a fresh of coffee to work on the crossword together.  Those are moments that I miss these days more than ever, with the holiday season in full swing.  Those are moments when it felt like "winter" to me.


And so I ask you, when does it feel like winter to you?  Is it the change in temperature?  The first snow?  Digging out the heavy coat, scarf, hat, and gloves?  Or are there special foods or traditions that bring winter to mind?


  1. When the heavy jacket, thermal underwear and insulated boots come out, it's winter for me. However, the first snowfall was always something special. For a brief time, the asphalt, grit and concrete of my hometown was blanketed by white. Everything was beautiful before the trafic and pollution took its toll and turned the snow black. Few things in life are as soothing to my soul as a silent, snowy winter night. Surprising coming from someone of tropical blood who loathes the cold isn't it? There's something special about walking at night, feeling the fresh snow and ice crunching under my feet while I watch my breath freeze before me.

    As far as traditions go, being Filipino we also hung parols (colorful Christmas stars) alongside our tree (almost always a real tree). Grandma and mom making suman (rice cake cooked in coconut milk, wrapped and steamed in banana leaves) for the season was a staple, though I didn't appreciate suman until years later. One memory I've grown quite fond of recently is my father taking us to see the tree at Rockefeller Center every year and attending Christmas mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral if there was room. There is nothing like Christmas in New York, especially if there's been a snowfall. I'd like to be there for the season again someday and share those memories with someone else.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your comment. Thanks for sharing! Food and weather always made winter and the holidays more real for me, and I'm glad the same goes for you, too. :) It is something magical to be able to walk around in and experience a fresh snow before the modern world tarnishes it.

    I am really hoping to get to see Rockefeller Center and the tree someday. It's on my list of things to do once I return home, along with actually going to a Christmas service!

  3. You're welcome Heather. I was feeling rather nostalgic answering your question and I tend to get all poetic when I reminisce. It's what I do having majored in creative writing after all. ;) While I've seen the tree numerous times, I've never actually been to the lighting ceremony and I think that needs to be done for at least one year whenever I go back to visit. And I've never been ice skating in that rink either! I've only been ice skating once in my life and that was here in Korea. I fell down. A lot. Christmas mass at St. Pat's is serious business as well.

    I'm not sure if/when they're doing it, but if you and I are around I wouldn't mind sharing a Christmas dinner at the Filipino place this year with you. Last year's at the old Alleyway was great and I walked over and continued eating and drinking at the Filipino place, impressing my friend Jessica that I was still standing after all the wine and brandy! Let me know if you're up for it.


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