We must have had single-pane windows in my childhood home, because I vividly remember being intrigued by the curling spirals and spiky tips on the frost patterns that covered the glass. I'd gather a collection of coins and other metal objects, warm them in my hands, and melt patterns in the frost. When the coins got too cold, I'd warm them in my hands again, or (shhh, don't tell my mother!) pop them in my mouth. I was so pleased when I read the Little House on the Prairie series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and learned that Laura and Mary had done the same thing with Ma's thimbles. I remember jostling for position with my older brother at our front door, as the glass there was always particularly frost-encrusted. We'd also make good use of the frost on the school bus windows, by pressing the pinky side of our fist against the glass, and then touching our fingertips along the end to add toes, making it look like a baby's footprint. I'd hoped for a good frosty day to take pictures before I had to submit the article, but no such luck. Thankfully, I have a friend, Tim Stone, with a real talent for photography, and he allowed me to include the following picture.
As an adult, my opinion of Jack Frost has dimmed a little. As a gardener, I dread the day that he makes his first appearance. I picture him bearing the opposite of the Midas touch, instead blackening every leaf and blossom he touches. I try to predict his visit, and harvest the last of my herbs and green tomatoes before he can destroy them. My enclosed front porch becomes home to a huge collection of potted plants as the nights get cooler and we risk seeing his handiwork.
For the record, I am not a morning person. I have my morning routine down to a science, and I don't crawl out from between the covers any earlier than absolutely necessary, especially once the house turns chilly. There is nothing worse than running late, heading out the door, and finding that prankster Jack Frost has covered my vehicle windows with a hard frost. Sometimes it makes the difference between getting the kids to the bus stop in time, or having to drive them to their respective schools, and being late to work myself.
Out of curiosity, I decided to see what background history I could find about Jack Frost. The first thing that came to mind was the song lyric from The Christmas Song, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire / Jack Frost nipping at your nose." This popular song, written by Mel Tourme and Bob Wells on a steamy summer day in 1946, has been performed by vocalists ranging from Nat King Cole to Justin Bieber, and everyone in between. This is a fairly innocuous Jack, who nips fingers, toes, and of course, noses when you venture outside in the winter.
As I researched the history a little, I learned that Jack Frost is based loosely on a Norse character, named Jokul Frosti. His name literally means Icicle Frost. There are similar characters worldwide, everywhere that bitter winters are common. Russia has Father Frost, a character who rewards kindness with rich gifts and safe passage, and punishes rudeness with a frozen death. In Germany, legend gives us an old woman who causes snow by shaking out her feather bed. The Saxons had three characters, (or perhaps three names for one character), known as King Frost, Father Frost, or even Father Time. We often see him at New Years, when he bears a sickle to represent death at the end of the year. To symbolize new beginnings, he abdicates his position to allow the newborn Baby New Year to step up.
The Vikings had a version very different from the mischievous, elfin Jack Frost of my childhood. They took winter very seriously, and considered it the personification of their Father god, Odin. He had 12 different personas, corresponding to the 12 months of the year. In December, Odin takes on the form of Yul or Jul, which is the the basis of our tradition of Yuletide (Jultid).
More recently, during the Civil War in the United States, the Union army looked to Jack Frost to assist them in their bid to defeat malaria, which had taken a heavy toll on the soldiers in the heat of summer. The picture below, by popular artist Thomas Nast, appeared in Harper's Weekly on October 5, 1861, with this caption: OUR NEW MAJOR-GENERAL. "Our faithful old Ally of the North, GENERAL JACK FROST, shall come and clear away the Malaria of the South, and we shall march Southward from this place, and there shall be no footsteps backward until this Rebellion is crushed out of this Union."-Speech of Major-General BUTLER. (wikipedia)
Of course, Jack Frost figures in quite a few poems. I've included a few at the end of this article. As older poems, all are available in the public domain.
By C.E. Pike
Look out! Look out!
Jack Frost is about!
He's after our fingers and toes;
And all through the night,
The gay little sprite
Is working where nobody knows.
He'll climb each tree,
So nimble is he,
His silvery powder he'll shake.
To windows he'll creep
And while we're asleep
Such wonderful pictures he'll make.
Across the grass
He'll merrily pass,
And change all its greenness to white.
Then home he will go
And laugh ho, ho ho!
What fun I have had in the night.
A pretty brook was running at play
With little Jack Frost on a cold winter's day.
It stopped to rest at the foot of a hill
Making a pond all quiet and still.
"Aha!" said Jack Frost, "Now isn't that nice?"
And quickly he turned the water to ice.
by Hannah F. Gould
The Frost looked forth one still, clear night,
And whispered, "Now I shall be out of sight;
So, through the valley, and over the height,
In silence I'll take my way.
I will not go on like that blustering train,
The wind and the snow, the hail and the rain,
That make such a bustle and noise in vain,
But I'll be as busy as they!"
So he flew to the mountain, and powdered its crest;
He lit on the trees, and their boughs he drest
With diamonds and pearls; and over the breast
Of the quivering lake he spread
A coat of mail, that it need not fear
The downward point of many a spear
That he hung on its margin, far and near,
Where a rock could rear its head.
He went to the windows of those who slept,
And over each pane, like a fairy, crept;
Wherever he breathed, wherever he stepped,
By the light of the morn were seen
Most beautiful things; there were flowers and trees;
There were bevies of birds and swarms of bees;
There were cities with temples and towers; and these
All pictured in silvery sheen!
But he did one thing that was hardly fair-
He peeped in the cupboard, and finding there
That all had forgotten for him to prepare-
"Now, just to set them a-thinking,
I'll bite this basket of fruit," said he,
"This costly pitcher I'll burst in three;
And the glass of water they've left for me
Shall ‘tchick' to tell them I'm drinking!"
Info on English, Viking, and Norse history: http://www.christmasarchives.com/england.html
General information on Jack Frost and the picture from Harper's Weekly: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Frost
Special thanks to my long-time friend, Tim Stone, who allowed me to use his beautiful picture of frost on a church window at the start of this article. You can see more of his work at: http://pix.timsworlds.com/
The following pictures were available for use on Wikimedia Commons. I am thankful to the photographers who make their work available for use!
Thumbnail image of grass with frost, taken in Salzburg by a user listed as ragesoss.
Image of frost on Bay Tree leaves, by wfmillar
Picture from Harper's Weekly of General Jack Frost, public domain
The remaining picture, of frost patterns on a car window, was made available on Flickr by dchallender.