This week's word comes from Old English wintr, thence the Proto-Germanic wentruz meaning "wet season", both originating in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) wed, wod or ud, meaning "wet" or "wind". There are possible ties to the Old Celtic vindo meaning "white", but that word always sounds more like the English "wind" to me. The Old Norse vetr sounds like the present day "weather" and may indeed be its root. Cognates include the Gothic wintru, Icelandic vetur, Swedish vinte, Danish vinter and Norwegian vetter.
Wherever it hails from, the most common word for the long white season been around for a very long time, and most cultures on this island earth have a word for it, though they may not have to experience it. The season occupies a singular place in our thoughts, dancing dramatically in a stronger light than its more moderate kin, and those of us who dwell where winter comes to call tend to predicate our activities in the other three seasons of the calendar year on making ready for it.
Because of the ferocity of northern winters, ancient Anglo-Saxons measured their calendar years from one winter to the next. In Old Norse, the word etrardag was used to designate the first day of the long cold season, usually the Saturday between Oct. 10 and 16. For the Celts, winter began at Samhain (October 31) or All Hallows (November 1) and ended on Imbolc or Candlemas (February 1 or 2) when springtime arrived. Northern ancients were sure that the world as they knew it would come to an end after the most savage winter in history. In the Edda of Norse mythology, the fimbulvetr (mighty winter) is one of the events that precedes the twilight of the gods, their last battle with the frost giants (led by Loki) and the destruction of the earth.
Ancient Celts celebrated the Winter Solstice on or about December 21, the longest night of the year. From that date on, the light of the sun would return, a little more every day until the Summer Solstice in June. The legendary King Arthur was believed to have been born on the Winter Solstice in Castle Tintagel in Cornwall, and in recognition of that, Druids sometimes refer to the Winter Solstice as Alban Arthuan ("The Light of Arthur").
It all comes down to cosmic balance. We owe the lineaments of our existence in the Great Round to a tilt in the earth's axis as it spins merrily in space. When winter reigns here in the north, the happy lands south of the equator are cavorting in summer. I cling tenaciously to that thought in the depths of frozen January.
When winter begins, I always consider moving further south, but it isn't going to happen. Instead, I pile up books and music for the long nights and accumulate tea. I stir curries, make bread and ponder the rows of jams and pickles in the household larder. I make my skis, snowshoes and boots ready for long snowy treks in the woods.
The long white season is about fruitful darkness, rest and rebirth, but it also gifts us with the most brilliantly blue skies of the year by day and the most spectacular starry nights. There is nothing to compare with the sun shining through frosted trees, the wild splendor of an outdoor winter ramble on a cold day. By necessity, my rambles will be brief this winter, but I will still be taking them.
To know the north woods and eastern Ontario highlands, one has to journey through them in winter, spend hours drinking in the shapes of sleeping trees with eyes and lens. She has to listen to snow falling among them and perhaps become a tree herself.