Category Archives: culture

Cultural observations.

Left Your Window Silver White: Jack Frost & Winter Wonder

While many of us often refer to Old Man Winter this time of year — and can picture him as an older man’s face imposed on a cloud, blowing in the cold air of the season — few know much about Jack Frost. At least much beyond him “nipping at your nose” in Robert Wells’ and Mel Tormé’s classic “Christmas Song” of 1945. As a personification of winter, he shares with the “Old Man” control over ice, snow, sleet and the like, yet he is often depicted as younger, spritely, and more playful than other harbingers of cold weather. Indeed, he seems to enjoy using his powers to delight children most, and represents a more magical view of winter than his curmudgeonly elderly counterpart.

His origins are sketchy. Whereas the “Old Man” can be traced to various deities — most notable the Greek god Boreas, or even the Celtic Oak King— not much is written about Jack before the early eighteenth century. Though traceable in some form to Scandinavian folktales, he seems to have, at least partially, originated in Britain where “Jack” was a common slang word for “man.”

Jack Frost by Thomas Nast

The first illustrated cartoon of Jack Frost is thought to be a political cartoon published in 1861 in Harper’s Weekly. Thomas Nast depicts a “General” Jack Frost freezing out the malaria that was spreading during the American Civil War. Curiously enough, Nast was also famous for creating the image of Santa Claus that we’re familiar with today.

Hannah Flagg Gould’s mid nineteenth century poem “The Frost” is perhaps the first to feature a mischievous being who leaves beautiful ice paintings on windows, although Jack is never named.

Not long thereafter, late nineteenth / early twentieth-century Scots writer  Gabriel Setoun (a pseudonym of Thomas Nicoll Hepburn) pens what it perhaps the first poem explicitly about Jack, appropriate entitled “Jack Frost.” It is here that much of the folklore seems to coalesce, presenting facets of the character that would become associated with him long thereafter. Ice painting on windows, yes. But more.

“The door was shut, as doors should be,” begins Setoun. “Before you went to bed last night.” Yet mischievously, “Jack Frost has got in…
and left your window silver white.”

In some of the earliest oral traditions, Jack is a painter who not only colors windows white, but paints frost on grass, even fall colors on autumn leaves. What Setoun does is expound and expand upon the magical qualities of Jack’s work, as the frost he paints on panes transforms into wondrous things.

The window pane of the poem shows “castles towering high” and “knights in armor riding by.” There are boats, palm trees, butterflies, and even cows and sheep.

For, creeping softly underneath
The door when all the lights are out,
Jack Frost takes every breath you breathe,
And knows the things you think about.

He paints them on the window-pane
In fairy lines with frozen steam;
And when you wake you see again
The lovely things you saw in dream.

Here there’s a clear contrast between the “Old Man” who seems little more than a stern bringer or storms, and Jack, a painter of sorts whose frosty art is transformative — the stuff of dreams.

Other writers would add to the legend, including Margaret Canby’s “Birdie and His Fairy Friends” (1874) where Jack leads  winter spirits to help children as King Winter, like the “Old Man,” is nothing but cruel. Even Helen Keller made her own version of this story, in 1891, entitled “The Frost King.”

It’s in Charles Sangster’s “Little Jack Frost,” however,  published in 1875, that Jack Frost is first seen running around playing pranks and nose-biting. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902), takes the nipping further (attacking “scores on noses and ears and toes.” Santas Claus seems to like Jack, but isn’t particularly happy that the mischievous sprite teases children.

Dozens of writers follow and build upon the tradition over the next hundred years. With each iteration, his character serves a particular theme, and, as would be expected, tone follows.

Jack Frost by Stan Lee in Timely Comics

None other than Stan Lee brought him to the comics in 1941. Early in his career with Timely Comics, Lee created a Jack Frost who was more villain than prankster — or at least an anti-hero much like the Hulk which Lee would go on to create year’s later when Timely became Marvel Comics. Lee’s Frost was a young man who mysteriously wandered out of the Arctic with no memory, and the ability to wield wintry precipitation. “Because of a misunderstanding with police, he is accused of murder and becomes a wanted criminal.” The rest pretty much writes itself!

From comically dark to outright depressing, Jack serves many masters in twentieth century art.

In Elizabeth Bishop’s heartbreaking “First Death in Nova Scotia” (1965), for example, the death of a small cousin leads the poet to imagining how Jack Frost might dress the body. Laid out on a table in a makeshift funeral following what would appear to have been a hunting accident, a boy “all white, like a doll that hadn’t been painted yet” would be the perfect canvas for Jack. He is evoked by the poet as quasi-savior — if only he could bring color (and life) back to the boy. “He had just begun on his hair, / a few red strokes, and then / Jack Frost had dropped the brush / and left him white, forever.”

Here, Jack cannot work his magic. Like an open hand, Bishop’s words slap us into the reality of cold, cold death.

William Joyce’s Jack Frost

On a much light note, Rankin Bass did a take on the character in a 1979 Christmas Special, but (with the exception of a really bad horror film from 1997 and a handful of other terrible “family” movies) it’s with the recent and popular Guardians of Childhood series by William Joyce that Jack Frost as a character has really come back into popular culture. Tailor-made for a pre-teen audience that craves adventure from characters that were once only folktales that parents told their children, Joyce’s Jack Frost was even the subject of a petition to be included in Frozen 2.  Far from folktale, Jack has the potential to become a film franchise.

Like most characters who come to us from ancient oral traditions and varied cultures, Jack Frost can, and does, take on many forms. But stories of him never stray far from stressing his youth and colorful nature during a time of year that is otherwise cold and grey. He is the antithesis of “Old Man Winter,” and in that contrast is the heart of his nature — a cold hand but a warm heart wrapped in a positive spirit that should be shared this time of year when winter blues can get to even the best of us.

Waking to ice on the window, snow on the car, and rock salt on the streets, we should stop to appreciate the delicate beauty of something as simple as oft-overlooked ice crystals. For Jack Frost’s brush put them there, making the otherwise stark reality of winter a more magical time of year.


The Creepy Clown and Naughty Nurse — Halloween Costumes: Revelatory, and Perverse

Homemade Halloween costumes, circa 1929
Homemade Halloween costumes, circa 1929

Any writer exploring the evolution of the Halloween costume could end up writing a book. From the homemade masks of children in the early twentieth century to the proliferation of sexy get-ups that line the walls at party stores in this, our new millennium, Halloween costumes always express something of the psychology of the wearer, and the times in which they live.

Tracing its origins back centuries to a pre-Christian Celtic festival celebrated in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany and Cornwall, Samhain — appropriated by the Church and given a sanitized and saintly moniker of “All Hallow’s Eve” — found celebrants both mumming and guising as early as the sixteenth century. These mummers / revelers went house-to-house in costume (or in disguise), reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. But the costumes were simple — rural and animal in nature.

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Halloween costume parties became more prevalent. But when the celebrations began to get too out-of-hand for Victorian sensibilities, the raucous parties for adults soon transformed into a more acceptable playful excursion deemed only appropriate for children.

Kids at a Halloween party in the 1950s
Kids at a Halloween party in the 1950s

By the early twentieth century, most of the traditions we associate with children going door to door for treats were well in place. Early on, their costumes were handmade: exaggerated papier-mâché faces, harlequins, and all manner of animals — from ravenous wolves to cute fuzzy bunnies. By the nineteen-fifties, mass-produced costumes made of plastic allowed kids to now be Bugs Bunny (not just any rabbit), or eye-patched pirates and red devils as in the picture at right.

An early twentieth century creepy clown
An early twentieth century creepy clown

Still, adults couldn’t resist the masquerade. Hundreds of photos from the early twentieth century show some disturbing Halloween costumes, like the creepy clown shown to the left.

Many psychologists have speculated that the reason both children and adults alike love dressing up is that — no surprise — a costume allows us to escape ourselves, and express a side of our personality that we can’t show in polite society. For children, it’s part of the act of imaginative play.

For adults, however, there may be more going on than just wanting to have some fun. Costumes can reveal much about our nature.

It’s an observation best made by Mark Griffiths, a psychologist writing in Psychology Today, when he paraphrases a colleague’s take on the matter; he writes that “psychotherapist Joyce Matter… examined whether fancy dress costumes bring out a person’s alter ego (or as she termed it, an individual’s “shadow side”).” This Jungian shadow doesn’t have to be dark and dangerous as the name implies. As Griffiths puts it: “I have come to believe the shadow side is not necessarily dormant characteristics that are negative—they often contain positive aspects of self which we have not been free to embody. Once we honor and integrate them, they can become powerful strengths.”

Those who feel physically weak might dress as Superman. A devout Christian might entertain being the Devil for an evening. Some cultural theorists refer to such disguises as “costumes against type.” As to the gory and grotesque? Perhaps it’s a way of dealing with one’s own mortality, or being able to scare and be scared without the threat of real physical harm — or even death itself.

The Naughty Nurse
The Naughty Nurse

How then, though, do we account for a more recent phenomena that Elizabeth Greer, author of the paper The Rise of Slut-o-ween, calls, not surprisingly, “slutoween”? Placed in the context of a psychological need to be free to embody an aspect of self that we otherwise keep hidden the other 364 days of the year, sexy costumes — the sexy nurse, the sexy cop, etc. — are a way to adopt a sexual persona that, in theory, won’t carry the label of “slut” beyond the one day societally allowed for being perceived as a sexual object, or sexually uninhibited.

“You’re not worried about being judged,” says Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and host of “The Power of Different” podcast, recently interviewed by Medical Daily. “You get attention you unconsciously or consciously want.”

Costumes always draw attention. And this desire to be seen as someone different, mysterious, or uninhibited is not confined to Halloween.  For centuries, there have been masquerade balls. There’s Mardi Gras. There are LGBTQ events where the donning of costume is an expression of identity. And most recently, there is the now multi-million dollar phenomenon of CosPlay — fueled by comic and horror conventions around the world (most notably, once every year in San Diego). CosPlayers take costuming to the next level: spending months in preparation, and creating social media celebrities. Over half a million people alone belong to just one of the many groups on Facebook.

Complications in costuming come, however, when trends like “slutoween” spill over into costumes for tweens (and even younger children) — sending quite disturbing messages to young girls that growing up means dressing up like a sexual object.

Even worse are situations when costumes become outright racist.

Racism in early 20th century Halloween costumes
Racism in early 20th century Halloween costumes

Blackface in Halloween costumes dates all the way back to the nineteenth century. And while one would think we now live in more enlightened times, offensive stereotypes of minorities are evident in many a homemade costume. About a decade ago, the NY Times covered a controversial Halloween costume contest held at an immigration enforcement office party where a white agency employee “wore a dreadlock wig, what looked like a prison jumpsuit and black face paint.” One would think we left this kind of ugliness behind, but, of course, when even our television news personalities seem to defend its history (if not its use), one can begin to see that costumes have had, and continue to have a dark side — independent of the Jungian shadow. There’s a bit of the sinister in some costumes, and it’s not the kind of sinister that accompanies cheap and silly scares.

Batwoman cosplay (cosplayer unknown)
Batwoman cosplay (cosplayer unknown)

When all is said and done, if a costume — be it Batman or a sexy nurse (or a sexy Batwoman for that matter [who, not to overly complicate things, happens to be a kick-ass lesbian in the comics]) — empowers the wearer to express healthy aspects of self that are otherwise kept down in order to survive the everyday “normal” world, all the better.

The freedom to be someone else by putting on a costume — if only at Halloween — can indeed satisfy our shadow side. More than the imaginative play of a child, it can be an act of revelation.

Or just plain fun.