I spent some of my childhood years in Winnipeg, Manitoba. If you have (mis)conceptions about Canada, I suppose they would be mostly true of winters in Winnipeg.
Winnipeg is a prairie city where windy winters are snowy, crisply cold, and nine or more months long. My mother would struggle to amuse her four small children indoors for many long hours, until eventually would come her cry, “Out! Outside, all of you!” That sent us scurrying first to the bathroom and then to the back door landing to get ourselves ready. Sometimes she must have wondered whether it was worth the effort.
You see, being sent out to play required donning many, many layers of under and outer wear. And of course everything needed to be done decently and in good order to be ready for the wild outdoors. You couldn’t simply slip your feet as-is into your boots. First you needed to apply a thick under-layer of socks. Then you needed to secure your snow pants under the bridge of your foot with a strap to guarantee the inner lining stayed down where it belonged. Wool socks from Oma in Holland were wrapped snugly overtop, anchoring the strap. This was followed by crazy antics—rolling around like puppies alternated with wild stamping until our fat feet fit into our chunky boots. Great care was then taken to pull the outer flap of the pants way down to the bottom of the boot. Done!
Thick mittens were attached to coats with safety pins, then covered with the elastic sleeve cuffs. Knitted masks protected our delicate skin, leaving just four holes at opportune spots for eyes, nose, and mouth. Even now I can recall the peculiar smell of that frosted, dampened wool on my face.
We completed the Abominable Snowman look with multiple scarves wound round our necks and heads. Woe betide the child who left bare places for bitter wind or snow to contact skin at ankle, wrist, or neck! We learned early that Winnipeg winters were serious business and demanded due respect.
This went on forever from a child’s perspective, until the anomaly of Easter. Anomaly because, no matter that our address was Winnipeg, Manitoba, no matter that the calendar was stubbornly stuck on March, proper church etiquette called for a change of dress for Easter.
Away with dour, warm winter wear, and in with the new Easter dress, preferably frothy and pink. Out with the heavy leotards and clunky boots, and in with the lacy white socks and gloves. Out with the thick toques, and in with delicate beribboned hats festooned with fake flowers. In a good year, new black or white patent shoes polished off the Easter outfit. This was the season for Canadian girls to play Queen with white-gloved regal waves out the backseat window as our car crawled to church in a snowstorm.
All regal pretence was abandoned, however, while we hunched and stumbled through drifts to reach the church’s front entrance. Staggering, we pulled ourselves up the steep concrete steps along the metal hand rail. We knew too painfully what happened to foolish children who dared to lick that rail! We struggled to open one huge wooden door to find refuge inside. The wind slammed the door shut behind us, then howled furiously around the church. Snow swirled a dizzying dance, swishing and rustling, hard as sand pellets against the windows.
Indoors we stamped and shook ourselves clear of snow. Though our skin was patched red and white with cold, and the old building wouldn’t get warm until July, there was no question of keeping our heavy coats on. To do so would defeat the whole point of Easter clothing. Away, oh winter coat and scarf! They were sentenced to drip in the frigid lobby, while we paraded up the aisle in shivering splendor.
Against the backdrop of the raging storm, the sanctuary slowly swelled with an incongruous collection of summer wear. Easter itself arrived with our puffed pastel sleeves, miniature clip-on ties, Brylcreemed hair, and shiny shoes.
Outdoors the maniacal wind screamed. But it could not compete with the news our voices announced in strong,
triumphant strains. Even we children could sing the chorus of this one by memory.
Up from the grave he a-rrrrose (he a-rrrose!)
with a mighty triumph o’er his foes (he arose!)
He arose a victor from the dark domain
and he lives forever with his saints to reign . . .
While that last note lingered, our hearts shivered in anticipation of the echoing voices leading in their separate parts, the music building:
He arose! (He arose!) He arose! (He arose!)
And then, together, all feeling poured out through our lifted voices. Part song, part shout:
Hallelujah! Christ a-rrrrrose!
Though we children knew no different, the message of the song was made even more emphatic by the rolled r’s of our Dutch parents and grandparents. In their heavy brogue, Christ positively trilled to resurrection victory again in our Easter songs that day.
On one level our skimpy dress was utter foolishness, of course. I wonder that those practical, penny-conscious immigrants conceded to such fashion madness in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in March in the early 1960s. But what a delightful madness after all. A turn-the-whole-world-upside-down kind of madness. A we-know-a-different-reality-than-what-the-world-proclaims kind of madness. Enough, perhaps, to cause a twinkle in the eyes of God.
Though unfamiliar with C.S. Lewis, we stubborn Dutch immigrants dressed to declare a Narnia truth on those stormy Easter Sundays. Yes, the wicked White Witch and her evil minions still held some real present power. Winter seemed to rule the world with a frozen grip. Our winter coats and boots puddling in the lobby were evidence of that, as were the few sweaters worn as a concession to the continuing cold. But they did not tell the whole story. They did not have the last word.
Like members of some subversive underground movement, we discarded our outer garments to reveal another, stronger truth. Our arms might still be pale and bumpy as chicken flesh, and our frilly socks might be sodden, but our incongruous Easter wear proclaimed a new in-breaking reality: Somewhere a winter thaw is threatening. Snowflakes are liquefying and becoming droplets. Droplets drip into trickles. And trickles swell to streams. Nearby, under meter-high snowdrifts, crocus bulbs are miraculously awakening. The old is gone. The new has come!
Whatever the present winter of your discontent, whatever evil wind pursues you, whatever storm rages in your present world, O child of God, take heart. The kingdom of God is here. Even now, Aslan is on the move. Someday the coming Great Thaw will free our hearts and our world completely.
So find a frilly hat. And laugh out loud when you put it on.
Break out the Brylcreem. Apply it lavishly.
Shine your shoes. Discard your winter coat. Dress for a new reality. Even in Winnipeg, Manitoba, winter comes to an end.
For Christ the Lord is risen today. Alleluia!