For much of northern Europe and North America, the winter is a time when all who can, stay indoors. In the past, when food became scarce and semi-starvation was almost an annual event, those who could, might take to their beds for weeks on end.
The Christmas festival was one exception to this, a time when people dug into their reserves, and even went outdoors to congregate in fairs, festivities and sports. This article looks at a few of those, as shown in some of the most festive paintings of winter.
Among the best-known of winter paintings, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565) was copied repeatedly by his son Pieter, and by others in the family workshop. At least sixty copies are believed to have been made, one dated as late as 1626, sixty years after the original.
Those on the frozen river are walking or skating, and to the right of the canoe-like boat a small group is engaged in the game of colf, shown in more detail below.
A succession of artists from what are now The Netherlands and Belgium built successful careers largely on their paintings of winter scenes like this.
Hendrick Avercamp’s Winter Landscape with Skaters is seen in a 1608 version above, and from around 1630 below. The whole population seems to have spilled out from the warmth of buildings to take to the ice. The fashionable parade in their best clothes and company, children play, and the occasional less able skater ends up sat on the ice.
Adriaen van de Venne shows a similar scene in The Winter (1614).
Sebastiaen Vrancx, a Flemish painter based in Antwerp, shows events in a smaller town in Winter Pleasures (1600-47).
Aert van der Neer’s beautifully-lit Sports on a Frozen River (c 1660) includes several who are playing colf, an antecedent of golf which was also played during the warmer months, but was most distinctively played on frozen rivers and canals.
Adriaen van de Velde’s Colf Players on the Ice near Haarlem (1668) affords a closer view of a game in progress. You can see more of his superb paintings in this article.
Some of the best-known winter fairs took place on the River Thames in London between 1506 and 1814. Northern Europe, including The Netherlands and even Britain, experienced many exceptional long, cold winters over that period, often known as the Little Ice Age.
Painted by an unknown artist, Frost Fair on the Thames, with Old London Bridge in the Distance (c 1685) probably shows the scene in 1683-4, when the ice here reached a thickness of nearly thirty centimetres, and extended out into the North Sea, blocking many harbours.
The modern history painter Rita Greer shows a reconstructed view from the same winter in The Frost Fair (2009).
This painting from the workshop of Jan Bruegel the Elder, Allegory of Winter (1616), is more puzzling. As an allegory, it describes one subject (here, winter) in the guise of another subject (the summer banquet in the foreground). Presumably the two opulent figures seated at the table represent the personifications of winter, enjoying sumptuous winter fare which is being brought to their table by a queue of servants. Note the waffles just right of the middle of the lower edge.
In the background, the city’s streets are packed with people attending a real winter fair.
Johann Heiss’s Allegory of Winter (1665) goes even further, with the wizened old man in the centre, icicles hanging from his hair and fingers.
In the coldest climates, outdoor festivities at Christmas are more severely limited, and the major outdoor festival takes place at the end of winter, celebrating the start of spring.
This includes the Eastern Slavic holiday shown in Boris Kustodiev’s Maslenitsa (1919). Maslenitsa (known in Russian as Ма́сленица, Ukrainian as Масниця, and Belarusian as Масьленіца) takes place during the last week before the start of the Eastern Orthodox Great Lent. If you want to celebrate that in 2017, it will take place between 20 February and 4 March, but as it is linked to Orthodox Easter (Pascha), the dates vary each year.
In the north-eastern states of America, the end of the winter was marked by camps which tapped and processed maple syrup, shown in Eastman Johnson’s Sugaring Off at the Camp, Fryeburg, Maine (c 1864-66). Their story is told in this article.
I hope that this Boxing Day, you find a suitable fair, feast, or festival. At least (in the northern hemisphere) the days are now getting longer.