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?