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Personifications of the season, such as Jack Frost and Old Man Winter, are symbolically credited for the incoming storms and chill of winter, as humanity's fascination with weather has been ingrained in storytelling, religion and mythology for centuries.
Astronomical winter officially begins on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. However, some portions of the U.S. have been gripped by an icy chill and snow since November.
The winter solstice has been a major event for religions throughout history. For many groups who lived in climates that experienced drastically different seasons, winter was often a hard time of year for finding food and surviving the elements.
For cultures that credited each aspect of their lives to a god or goddess, winter was a time to appease the deities of the season to ensure survival and the return of spring.
Ancient Greek mythologies are an example of a culture in which each aspect of the seasons and weather elements were credited to divine beings.
"All meteorological forces, each direction of the wind had a name and was worshiped as a god," said Dr. Clint Corcoran, head of the Religion and Philosophy Department at High Point University.
The Greek seasons myth centers on the story of the goddess Demeter, ruler of harvest. When her daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld, she became so despondent that she could not care for the lands, and winter took over. After a deal was struck with Hades, Persephone was allowed to return to the Earth for six months of the year at which time the lands thrived, but every six months she would return to the underworld and the seasons would change again.
Each direction of wind was considered a god. Boreas was the Greek god of the north wind. Depicted in ancient art as an old man, he was considered the bringer of winter and the cold. The harshness of the season was paralleled by his supposedly harsh personality, short-tempered and severe.
Conversely, in some Celtic traditions, the Oak King is considered a deity of the winter solstice and is seen as a bringing of life. According to legend, the Oak King would battle the Holly King who ruled from the start of summer. Though the Oak King's reign would begin at the darkest time of the year, his coming marked the gradual progression towards spring and summer, rather than being seen as the bringer of the winter season.
For the Norse mythologies, Ullr was the god of winter. Son of a frost giant, he would rule Asgard in Odin's absence in the winter. It was believed he created the northern lights to help compensate for the shortened daylight during the season.
As time progressed, stories of ancient gods of winter began to transform into new personifications of the season. The old gods riding across lands on icy winds transformed to the more modern adaptations, such as Old Man Winter, or Russia's Father Frost. These personifications have become colloquialisms for the winter season, evolving from old world religious roots to figures in literature and pop culture.
Jack Frost has been referenced in stories and songs since at least the 1700s. He is typically viewed as a mischievous boy who bites the noses of people to give them a chill. Today, the Jack Frost mythology has made its way into movies, such as Rise of the Guardians, games and comic books, sometimes as a story's hero or its villain, but always a harbinger of cold weather.
While astronomical winter is based on the number of hours of daylight, typically falling on Dec. 21, meteorological winter is based on the calendar months and began Dec. 1. While the science behind the changing of the seasons has evolved over the centuries, references to the characterization of the season continue to prevail in cultures around the world.
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