Snow is a lovely natural phenomena that normally ushers in winter and signifies the change of seasons. It evokes anticipation for the holidays and nostalgia for childhoods spent marvelling at the enchantment of each snowflake. However, these are not the only meanings associated with snow; you may be surprised to learn that this form of precipitation can also represent hardship, transformation, and individuality. Join us as we examine the symbolism of snow and the various ways religions, myths, and cultures have interpreted it over time.
Spiritual Significance of Snow
Various cultures have long used snow as a symbol in their spiritual beliefs. Snow is a symbol of purity in Christianity, as evidenced by Psalm 51:7, in which the psalmist prays, “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” East Asian cultures also view snow as something pure and untainted. Ming-Dao Deng writes similarly in his book Everyday Tao: Living With Balance and Harmony, “White is the symbol of purity. It is the hue of spirituality in ceremonies.”
The use of snow as a symbol of holiness is not limited to religious texts; it can also be found in literature. Consider Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, in which one character says, “I believed her to be as pure as unmelted snow.” In other plays, including Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale, and even Hamlet, Shakespeare uses snow as a metaphor for purity. The name of the famously pure fairy tale heroine, Snow White, is also a metaphor.
In an essay he wrote for Meaningful Life Center, a spiritual education and wellness organization, author and rabbi Simon Jacobson delves even deeper. He begins by stating, “Water in all of its forms is a symbol of knowledge. The descent of water symbolises the transfer of knowledge from a higher to a lower location, the flow of information from teacher to student. Thus, snowfall could represent the dissemination of knowledge.
While the rabbi compares rain to an endless flow of knowledge to the Earth, snow is more subtle. Jacobson notes that a snowflake requires both water droplets (in the form of vapor) and a nucleus composed of dust, minerals, and other airborne particles in order to form. In other words, it is technically composed of both earth and water.
Thus, according to Jacobson, the water droplets represent God’s knowledge, whereas the earth represents the material world. Due to this combination, snow may represent a link between heaven and Earth. Given that snow eventually melts into water, Rabbi Jacobson explains that “snowflakes represent the need to explain gradually, step-by-step, and in a language that the student can understand.”
Mystical Snow Symbols
Snow also appears in the popular Rider-Waite tarot deck from 1909, notably in the Five of Pentacles, Hermit, and Fool cards. Given that the tarot is all about symbolism and serves to interpret subconscious symbols, such as those that appear in dreams, it is intriguing to examine how snow is typically depicted on the cards.
As illustrated by the Five of Pentacles card, snow is not typically associated with gentle meanings in tarot. In this card, a couple personifies the concept of being “left out in the cold,” which can be attributed to financial loss, poverty, or poor preparation. While the Hermit appears to be doing better, the message of his card is his mastery over his snowy environment. In this sense, the hermit is frequently associated with seclusion, particularly the intentional withdrawal that is sometimes undertaken to pursue spiritual development. Having achieved a level of spiritual mastery over his harsh environment, represented by snow as isolation and desolation, he holds out a lantern as a beacon to other seekers.
Last but not least, we have the Fool, an eager young man who has just begun his journey into the unknown. As he prepares to “leap off the cliff,” he appears blissfully unaware of the trials and obstacles he will face as he attempts to conquer the snowy mountains in the background. Snow can sometimes represent purity or new beginnings, but its symbolism varies greatly depending on one’s point of view. A harsh winter could have been a death sentence for those unprepared for its severity for many years.
Similarly, snow has frequently served as a literary metaphor for desolation, desperation, and death. The author of Edith Warton’s Ethan Frome describes one character’s face as “more drawn and bloodless than usual” due to “the pale light reflected from the snowbanks.” Even A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens uses the analogy of snow to describe Scrooge’s particularly cold heart. Dickens wrote, in describing the notorious miser, that “no wind that blew was more bitter than he, no falling snow was more intent on its purpose, and no pelting rain was less receptive to entreaties.”
Snow in Celtic Mythology and Tradition
Have you ever questioned why holly is traditionally hung in the winter? This tradition has its origins in Celtic folklore. These ancient ancestors were acutely aware of seasonal changes, as their survival often depended on taking advantage of favourable weather conditions during planting and harvesting seasons.
Summer and winter were represented in Celtic mythology by the Oak King and the Holly King, respectively. The Oak King was the monarch of summer, representing growth, fertility, harvest, and longer days. Winter, on the other hand, was the Holly King’s domain, and he represented darker days, a lack of growth, and death.
Each year, the Oak and Holly kings fought to the death, with the victor ushering in the season he represented. When the Holly King ascended to the throne each year and brought snowy winter days with him, it became customary to hang holly leaves in his honor. Holly was also believed to ward off evil spirits due to its prickly leaves, and it was also believed to represent hope and resiliency due to its ability to grow in the snow.
Intriguingly, despite the Holly King’s justifiable respect (and even fear), he does not appear to have been reviled enough to be portrayed as a demon or other evil force. Instead, he resembled Santa Claus, as he wore red and occasionally rode a sleigh pulled by eight deer. Although ancient people believed the Oak and Holly kings were always at war, they also recognised that neither could exist without the other.
In this way, snow can also be viewed as a necessary death preceding the rebirth of life. Snow can be interpreted in this context as a harsh yet potent force of rebirth and new beginnings. This type of symbolism is still evident in the winter tradition of New Year’s resolutions, in which we pledge to abandon our old, harmful habits and adopt new, healthier ones.