In my humble abode in northern Virginia, the weather has been warm this winter and we’ve had no snow. The historical average high for December and January is in the 30’s or low 40’s. For most of December it was in the 50’s and occasionally it ventured into the 60’s. For the past couple days, it has been acceptably cold. Two nights ago it got down to 16 degrees Fahrenheit. This weekend, however, it’s expected to pop back up to the 60’s once again. I might almost blame global warming if Rick Perry hadn’t assured me that it doesn’t exist.
The unseasonable weather, along with the season, got me thinking about a passage from Chesterton’s book The New Jerusalem. Chesterton was familiar with all the debates about the historicity of the Christmas story. One of the minor points that those broad-minded skeptics sometimes bring up is that, contra what you’d see on many Christmas cards or hear in certain carols, there is not actually much snow in and around Bethlehem during winter. Hence these skeptics get their favorite thing, a chance to point out an inaccuracy. Not an inaccuracy in the gospels mind you, but just an inaccuracy in certain sentimental images attached to the holiday of Christmas. When Chesterton visited Jerusalem, however, he had a chance to remember what many skeptics often forget. Saying that something rarely happens is different from saying that it never happens.
It was very cold; and there were curious colours in the sky. There had been chilly rains from time to time; and the whole air seemed to have taken on something sharper than a chill. It was as if a door had been opened in the northern corner of the heavens; letting in something that changed all the face of the earth. Great grey clouds with haloes of lurid pearl and pale-green were coming up from the plains or the sea and spreading over the towers of the city. In the middle of the moving mass of grey vapours was a splash of paler vapour; a wan white cloud whose white seemed somehow more ominous than gloom. It went over the high citadel like a white wild goose flying; and a few white feathers fell.
It was the snow; and it snowed day and night until that Eastern city was sealed up like a village in Norway or Northern Scotland. It rose in the streets till men might almost have been drowned in it like a sea of solid foam. And the people of the place told me there had been no such thing seen in it in all recent records, or perhaps in the records of all its four thousand years.
All this came later; but for me at the moment, looking at the scene in so dreamy a fashion, it seemed merely like a dramatic conclusion to my dream. It was but an accident confirming what was but an aspect. But it confirmed it with a strange and almost supernatural completeness. The white light out of the window in the north lay on all the roofs and turrets of the mountain town; for there is an aspect in which snow looks less like frozen water than like solidified light. As the snow accumulated there accumulated also everywhere those fantastic effects of frost which seem to fit in with the fantastic qualities of medieval architecture; and which make an icicle seem like the mere extension of a gargoyle. It was the atmosphere that has led so many romancers to make medieval Paris a mere black and white study of night and snow. Something had redrawn in silver all things from the rude ornament on the old gateways to the wrinkles on the ancient hills of Moab. Fields of white still spotted with green swept down into the valleys between us and the hills; and high above them the Holy City lifted her head into the thunder-clouded heavens, wearing a white head-dress like a daughter of the Crusaders.