The latest book by Sam Usher stopped me in my tracks. I’ve devoured the children’s books brilliantly illustrated by this Chicago dad, and the title of his new release immediately drew me in: “A Night at the Frost Fair.”
The cover art felt at once familiar and mystical. Here in Minnesota, my family’s winter nights are spent skating under moonlight, like the children he illustrated. But they skate on London’s River Thames, in the shadow of the cathedral, and their story takes place two centuries ago.
It’s set during the Little Ice Age, the period from the 13th to 19th century when the North Atlantic region experienced particularly cold winters. During that time, the River Thames froze over at least two dozen times. Old London Bridge, which was made of 19 arches, slowed the river’s currents, making it more likely to freeze.
Boatmen who could no longer ferry people across the river but needed to generate income converted their boats to sleds and swings, and the Frost Fair was born. The river became a magical street filled with music and torches, booths and brightly painted swingboats. One year an elephant was led across the river.
A season of isolation became a time for merriment. The freezing cold made it possible.
This feels like a metaphor — and a relevant one for the seemingly interminable winter we find ourselves in. It is dark and cold; we are sick and tired. We still have not overcome COVID-19, and it’s getting harder to imagine a future without it.
How can we, in our weariness, throw together a Frost Fair of our own design?
The answer is hinted at in the song “Blankets of Snow,” a winter anthem by the bluegrass duo The Okee Dokee Brothers. They sing: “Let the milk and cocoa simmer on the heat. Don’t you know the bitter cold makes the bittersweet.”
The older I get, the more clearly I see the beauty of winter, spinning lace on every tree branch. I also see the adventure it offers. As a kid, I frolicked in fresh snow sheerly for the fun of it. As an adult, I embrace it as a way of life — a noble, Nordic resilience.
If it’s above zero, we bundle up and head to the neighborhood pond, our sled filled with ice skates and firewood. We roast more marshmallows in the winter than the summer. That’s when we need the fire.
I’m reading Katherine May’s bestseller “Wintering,” which chronicles a period she calls “wintering,” when she and her husband experienced serious health problems and their son’s anxiety peaked. Katherine mines meaning out of a season many consider dormant, worthless. But she does so with gentle realism.
“If happiness is a skill,” she writes, “then sadness is too. … As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.”
This concept feels encapsulated in our Catholic faith, which delivers healing through sacraments we cannot find elsewhere. The priest doesn’t say Mass; he celebrates it. In the dead of winter, the Eucharist nourishes us.
Our faith gives us the lens to see the bittersweet in the bitter cold. It draws us around the fire.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.