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Early Winter’s Tale

I’ve always thought Christina Rosetti got the words for winter better than just about anybody else:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty in wind made moan.
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone.

Talk is cheap, though. In reality, winter’s a real misery for the flesh.

It’s December, which is my favorite month, other than July when things are warm and days are long. But this December the cold has come on so strong, so early that I feel myself gearing up for a five-month-long stretch of complaining. Normally I restrict myself to four, beginning just after New Year’s when everybody else is already grouchy.

Because this early brutal chilliness is violating the code of what should and should not happen in December. December is supposed to be a genial month, a month of Winter, Lite. Or at least Winter, the postcard.

It’s acceptable, more or less, when the really nasty stuff comes in January. After all, people weren’t meant to live in upstate New York—or anywhere much north of the Mason-Dixon line—in January unless they had fireplaces and hot tubs and heated garages and attractive long underwear and friends who don’t talk about the wonders of skiing and all the makings for several months’ worth of hot buttered rums.

And who’s got all that, anyway?

But there are things that just should not happen in December. Only they are.

For example, there should not be a layer of ice over the six inches of unraked oak leaves in my backyard. This is wrong. Nor should there be snow blanketing them, assuring that, in the distant future when spring actually arrives (and the beauty is that it always does, eventually), my yard will become a breeding ground for thick and juicy slugs.

There should not be the need for the high-powered, high-priced Lancôme moisturizer until after the New Year. Because nobody should have to fight their way to a makeup counter in a shopping mall until the Christmas shopping frenzy subsides. Until then, Ponds—$4.50 at Hannaford—ought to be enough. But it’s only the first week in December and my cheeks hurt when I smile.

Which I am doing less and less of because the other thing about December that is not supposed to be happening is that I keep finding myself in my cold Camry wagon driving my daughters to school so that Linnea’s hands don’t freeze to the trombone case and Maddie doesn’t turn blue wearing just her corduroy jacket—fashion trumps warmth every time.

What shouldn’t happen in December is that you go on an out-of-town trip and you lose one, only one, of your gloves right at the outset and can’t really swing the cost of a new pair since the pressing need for Lancôme moisturizer is putting a crimp in your budget.

What shouldn’t happen in December is that temperature drops below your shoe size for even one day.

What shouldn’t happen in December is that the wind chill turns your woolen clothes to frozen aluminum foil against your skin.

You shouldn’t have to wear clodhopper boots, or quilted down parkas or Toastie Toes on your socks or thermal long johns in December.

You shouldn’t have to wear a balaclava to go buy a Christmas tree.

These are the things that should not happen in December.

On the other hand, because I am not in fact a grouse, but rather someone passionately dedicated to a high quality of life, I’m happy to tell you what should happen in December. Because after all, next to July, December is really a pretty good month.

You should be able to wear high heels when you go out to dinner in December.

In December, you should still be able to entertain the idea that maybe you will, after all, learn to ice skate.

You should be able to shop outside in December. You should be able to stroll around outside drinking a cup of Starbucks hot chocolate with a grand tuft of whipped cream on top of it. You should be able to kiss outside in December.

What should happen in December is that there should be an afternoon when the sun is dazzling and so bright you can actually feel the radiance on your face. And then it begins to snow—yes, I like a little bit of snow now and then—and the snow is powdery and the sun turns it into millions of shards of light. And then the wind blows, but only just enough to make the light shards shift and dance before settling on branches and on the bare—and leafless—ground.

You should be able to go outside in December and lay out flat in the snow to make lovely and terrifying snow angels. And you should be able to do this without even considering how cold your bottom will be by the time you’ve finished carefully flapping your angel wings.

You should be able to pour grade B dark amber maple syrup on the snow and eat a handful from your mitten without even thinking twice about impending slush or air pollution.

What should happen in December is that you have people over for dinner, and when you open up the door to let them in, they sweep in on a gust of cold air rich with the smoky aroma from your own fireplace. What should happen in December is that you hand them upward, opening glasses of champagne and little packages wrapped in tissue paper and leave Christmas crackers at each of their plates, which pop open to disgorge their fortune-teller fish and folded paper hats and little plastic rings and keychains and predictions for the coming year.

And what should happen in December is that—later, much later—when the guests leave, you sit in the dark of the living room, with just firelight and candlelight, and the sound of shifting logs or the breathing of loved ones is all that you can or want to hear.

These are the things that should happen in December. And maybe, if there is any kind of winter wisdom, they can happen in January, too.

—Jo Page

 You can contact Jo Page at

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