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Yesterday was the winter solstice, so we are now embarking on the coldest part of the year. In Hobart they celebrated the winter solstice with an icy nude swim at sunrise, and declared that being half frozen to death was quite exhilarating.
It’s been a fairly mild winter so far (hopefully in Hobart too), although winter still came as a shock to me as we’d had such a warm autumn. There’s lots to enjoy about winter: the grass which was dry and brown in summer is now a lush green; the sunshine is warm, but doesn’t burn; the clear blue skies of winter are more beautiful than in summer.
I look forward to making soup, walking for miles without getting hot and sweaty, footy season, weekends ski-ing, and cold nights at home by the fire. I love the eerie look of trees looming through fog, waking up to find a glitter of ice on the lawn, snow capping the mountains, or falling softly on the house like icing sugar.
Of course, I also hate going to work in the pitch dark, finding the frost has killed all the vegetables in the garden, everyone tracking mud and dead leaf mush into the house, and miserable grey days where the sun doesn’t appear until 3.30 pm, then sets at 4. But on a sunny winter Sunday, it’s easy to forget all that.
I planned to do the name Winter today back in January, but yesterday a blog reader considered the name Winter for one of her twin daughters, and on Friday there was a boy with Winter as one of his middle names, so what with the winter solstice, this does seem like the weekend for Winter.
Winter is an English word derived from Ancient Germanic. The original meaning is not known for sure: it may come from an ancient word for “water”, possibly to denote “wet season”.
The English surname Winter started out as a nickname for someone who was of a cold or miserable “wintry” temperament – not very flattering! As an Irish surname, Winter can be an Anglicisation of the Gaelic Mac Giolla Gheimhridh, meaning “son of the servant of Gheimhridh”, with the personal name Gheimhridh meaning “winter”. Winter can also be a German-Jewish surname after the season. The surname is frequently spelled Wynter, making this a variant spelling with a long history.
Winter has been used as a first name since at least the 16th century, and according to early records, most people named Winter were born during the winter months. Later records don’t seem to show much correlation between the name Winter being chosen and the season of birth.
Winter is historically much more common as a male name, suggesting that the surname was more influential than the season. These days, Winter is more often thought of as a female name, and it charts in the United States as a girl’s name only, where it is rising. In the UK, Winter is more common for girls (more than three times as many Winters are girls), but is rising steeply for both sexes. Interestingly, the less common spelling Wynter has been much more evenly given to both sexes through history (although still more common for males).
Winter was in the 200s in Victoria in 2012 – there were almost as many baby girls named Winter just in this state as in the whole of the UK. I see Winter used mostly as a girl’s name in Australian birth notices, but it seems more common as a boy’s name in the middle position, showing its great versatility.
Even though Winter is currently more common as a girl’s name, it still seems very usable for boys. It sounds similar to Winston, is a surname, and the season of winter isn’t generally thought of as particularly feminine. It is sometimes personalised as Old Man Winter or Father Winter, and another “winter character” of folklore is Jack Frost. This always reminds me of the Australian bird, the Jacky Winter – another boyish-sounding winter connection.
I can think of two famous female characters connected to winter, and they are both from the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson. One of them is the beautiful yet deadly Ice-Maiden, and the other is the Snow Queen. Although the Snow Queen is a seemingly malevolent character, she is an attractive one: beautiful, strong, and intelligent, she is a “queen bee”. Because of these two characters, we call an alluring yet frosty woman an “ice maiden” or “snow queen”, and rumour has it that Anderson based both these characters on the opera singer Jenny Lind, and her rejection of him.
The Snow Queen recently received a reboot in the Disney film Frozen, with a completely different plot and characters from Anderson’s fairy tale. The stranger-danger theme of a beautiful cold woman in a sleigh seducing, abducting, and imprisoning a little boy had already been co-opted by C.S. Lewis for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, so something different was necessary.
Frozen has been a huge hit, with its appealing characters, fun dialogue, heart-warming coming-of-age story, and catchy songs. As Ebony from Babynameobsessed has pointed out, that has had an effect on the naming world. The name Elsa is becoming more popular, Arendelle suddenly seems usable as a baby name, and perhaps we can expect more winter-inspired names such as Snow, Frost, Ivy, June … and Winter.
Winter is a clean-sounding name that conjures up the purity of virgin snow, mysterious fog descending on the earth like a white blanket, the crisp sparkle of morning frost. Or maybe it reminds you of invigorating hikes in the cold air, and the thrill of downhill ski-ing, or of hot cocoa drunk before a blazing fire, and snuggling under the quilts at night while listening to a storm roaring outside.
When I think of stories connected with winter, apart from ice maidens, snow queens, white witches and frost fairies, I think of the white bear in the tale East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon, of the frost giants of Norse legend, of William Shakespeare’s comedy The Winter’s Tale, with its frozen queen, and Mark Helprin’s New York fantasy, Winter’s Tale.
There are so many fantasy stories about winter, perfect for recounting before the fire on cold nights, that there seems something magical it. Anything is possible in a winter wonderland – it’s a season of miracles.
(Picture shows Craig’s Hut at Thredbo, New South Wales; photo from Red Bubble)