Adaptation, Enchantment, and Solidarity in a “Winter” City – An Excerpt from Seasonal Sociology

Back in Fall, we shared an excerpt from Seasonal Sociology on the Pumpkin Spice Latte, a drink which has become, for many, a seasonal ritual. Thinking about the seasons sociologically opens up a unique perspective for studying and understanding social life. So as temperatures plummet this week across Canada, we thought we would share another excerpt from the book, this time from Chapter 7, which focuses on the city of Edmonton, Alberta, and their efforts to embrace and celebrate winter.

Seasonal Sociology was recently voted the winner of the 2021 PROSE award for best textbook in the Social Sciences. Congratulations to editors Tonya K. Davidson and Ondine Park, as well as all the contributors!

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Chapter 7 –  Season of Dreaded Joys: Adaptation, Enchantment, and Solidarity in a “Winter” City
Chapter was written by Tara Milbrandt

This is Canada, we have winter, life sucks, get a toque, and embrace it.
– Rick Mercer, Canadian Weather Rant (2007)

Love it or dread it, across most of Canada, winter brings prolonged freezing temperatures, frost, snow, and ice, as well as shorter days and longer nights. Throughout the Canadian prairies, which are the primary reference point for this chapter, winter endures for five to six months every year, bringing a snow-covered landscape, with temperatures well below zero Celsius for most of this time. That its conditions are not permanent, that winter comes and winter goes, is an important – if under-recognized – factor in how we experience the season. Winter’s arrival and departure compel significant changes in daily life, foregrounding its socially meaningful and not merely climatically distinctive nature.

This chapter is a sociological exploration of the social landscape of winter in urban Canada, focusing on the prairie city of Edmonton, Alberta. I examine local municipal efforts underway to transform Edmonton into what it calls a “great winter city,” from a place where winter’s conditions are typically dreaded or merely endured into a place where they are creatively embraced and collectively celebrated. I analyze Edmonton’s current residential snow clearing policy within this context and argue for a more radically inclusive and collectivist vision. Thinking sociologically generates questions about what is and what might be, opening up a critically reflective approach to taken-for-granted understandings and social arrangements (Berger 1963). Highlighting the humanly produced and institutionally reinforced environment through which winter is interpreted and experienced, as well as opening up alternative possibilities, this case offers a point of comparison with other cities as they too grapple with winter’s unique challenges and possibilities.

Anchoring Seasonal Engagement

Edmonton’s WinterCity implementation guide outlines diverse ways to encourage and support forms of positive winter engagement, especially out-of-doors. Many components of the implementation plan are aimed at simply encouraging more people to get out and have fun with others during a season in which the temptation to remain indoors is strong. Early examples, such as organizing “hot chocolate squads” to deliver free treats to tobogganers at select hills on designated days, or to ice skating during a Valentine’s Day “disco skate” at Edmonton’s city hall, aim to create simple enticements to get people out. A “reverse striptease” in Edmonton’s central public square in December leads newcomers through a process of bundling up in warm seasonal attire. This activity reverses the potentially intimidating component of winterizing one’s body into a playfully subversive and socially integrative event. The city also orchestrates an annual “winterscaping” contest, where residents are encouraged to construct winter “gardens” on lawns or balconies through creative arrangements of light, ice, trees, and other materials. Mirroring seasonal lighting that appears throughout the city, illuminating the night sky in cinematic ways on utility poles and civic buildings, such contests encourage people to perceive and engage with winter elements – ice and snow, short days and dark nights – as sources of beauty, wonder, and (re)enchantment. Future-stated plans include installing heated bus stops and expanding cross-country ski paths throughout the city, creating more heated outdoor patios, and changing zoning bylaws to facilitate a more winter-positive and heated outdoor-friendly urban environment throughout the year.

Since the inception of its winter positive initiative, Edmonton has been supporting and promoting local winter stories, special events, and ordinary activities, often using selectively cheerful visuals of people partaking in different offerings of this “winter” city on its website. The cover of Edmonton’s Winter Design Guidelines offers such an example through a staged picture of quotidian winter city life: on a snowy, sunny day when it is cold enough to wear a parka, diverse people are matter-offactly meeting, consuming, and socializing at tables on outdoor patios downtown. The implicit hope is that a positive seasonal “buzz” is being generated, tempting more people to get out to recreate the meaning and experience of winter in Edmonton. Over time, it is possible that the idea that winter is a loveable season, and that Edmonton is a great winter city, will crystallize and become social facts (Durkheim 1982), and not merely be seen as a singularly municipal initiative or strange proclivity of a small population segment. Sociologically, this would mean that new manners of “acting, thinking, and feeling” about winter have become solidified, with an historical existence that transcends individual manifestations and offers resistance to deviants (e.g., “Stop grumbling about the snow, this is a winter city!”). The possibility of such transformation reveals that seasons are social and not simply the sum total of climatic conditions. The ways we embrace and engage, interpret and inhabit these conditions are components of a forever unfinished, collectively ordered reality (Berger and Luckmann 1966).

Winter Festivals: Seasonal Concentration, Cultural Activities, and Collective Effervescence

Milling around, square dancing in the snow (Flying Canoe Volant Winter Festival, February 2017).
Photo credit: Tara Milbrandt

Like tens of thousands of Edmontonians, I attended several winter-themed festivals and events that were promoted as part of Edmonton’s winter city festival calendar in 2016–17. Engaging in participant observation, I took notes before and after, read flyers and websites, made and studied photographs, engaged in activities, observed patterns, and spoke with other participants in casual conversations. I attended the opening of Edmonton’s newly defined winter patio season at Café Bicyclette in the city’s French-Canadian quarter, spent an afternoon and evening at the Byzantine Deep Freeze festival on 118 Street, went to Ice on Whyte in Old Strathcona, and attended the Flying Canoe Volant Festival in Mill Creek Ravine. I also visited the Ice Castle and spent an afternoon and evening at the Silver City Skate festival in Hawrelak Park. In all these engagements, I kept in mind my primary sociological research questions: What ideas of embracing winter are being enacted and what is being socially produced through these collective occasions?

First, as the bundled-up bodies demonstrated, embracing winter is not just thinking about winter differently, but doing things differently. This is suggested in the image (right), which shows friends and strangers milling about while listening to musicians play on a cold winter night in an Edmonton ravine. While one normally dresses for brief encounters with winter, winter festival dressing must take into account prolonged immersion in the cold, an acquired skill that is developed through repeated practice. In casual conversations, savvy festival participants referenced past experiences and lessons learned.

Getting creative with winter elements was an organizing theme at all events. Winter’s hardest physical manifestation – ice – was often used to elicit different kinds of interaction, bringing together adults and children, sometimes combining risk with play. It was transformed from frozen water into skilfully carved sculptures to admire and touch, an ice castle in which to wander, ice slides equipped with “crazy carpets” to zip down, a frozen lake to skate upon, and a race involving people inside of deep freezers being pushed along a small track of ice on a temporarily pedestrianized city street, while onlookers cheered. Contrasts between dark and light were used to transform cold, snowy spaces where one would ordinarily not venture on a winter night – e.g., a trail in a park or a clearing in a valley – into inviting social places. During the day, ice formations amplified the prairie sunlight. At night, the dark sky became a canvas against which to illuminate otherwise mundane objects, sometimes integrating imaginative elements that defied rational explanation, and opening up spaces for casual conversation between strangers. Strange and seemingly magical things could be seen, such as a visual display of red lights illuminating white snow and floating fish, set against dormant trees. Suggesting that Edmonton’s festivals were a way of re-enchanting the natural world, and infusing it with a sense of childhood wonder, I overheard people commenting on a feeling of magic in the air as they spectated upon these constructed winter sights.

Different kinds of activities – both focused and unstructured – punctuated the festivals and integrated diverse people of varying ages: music and dancing, storytelling and craft tables, performances and contests, skating and sleigh rides, hot chocolate sipping and bannock roasting. Such activities created temporary moments of conversation and contact among otherwise dispersed participants, as people drifted in and out of spaces gently filled with the sounds of voices, bells, drums, and fiddles. While the rich details of each particular festival exceed the scope of this chapter, it is important to note that diverse cultural traditions associated with communities that have deep historical connections to this land, season, region, and (now) city – both prior to and after European colonization – were an important presence during most of the festivals I attended. This included Indigenous, Métis, and French-Canadian cultural traditions and practices, as well as Ukrainian, Dutch, Norwegian, Acadian, and Afro-Albertan cultures, to name but a selection.

Edmonton’s winter festivals were not religious in the conventional sense, but from a sociological perspective, especially a Durkheimian perspective, there were observable dimensions of secular religiosity. Notably, these occasions drew otherwise dispersed people together in ways that seemed to generate powerful, if only momentary, experiences of self-awareness in being part of a larger entity – Edmonton, the winter city – that is special and valuable. As Durkheim (1995) stressed in his writing on religion (and as is demonstrated in the next chapter by Wrye, Graydon, and Thille, as well as by Buffam in chapter fifteen), collective practices are essential for the generation and renewal of shared identity. When people commune together and celebrate representations of the group, ideas about that group become real and energizing for its members. In what has become a highly anticipated annual event in Edmonton on selected nights during the annual Silverskate Festival, a Dutch-themed ten-day festival that began in 1990, a “fire sculpture” unites participants together in a dramatic ritual display (see Fleischer-Brown 2017). A folkloric tale about wolves and princesses was narrated by a guide during a lantern-filled walk I attended in the wooded area of the park one night in 2017. This culminated in participants – young and old – howling at a full moon, then cheering as a wolf-like structure was burned to the ground, with the assembled crowd encircling the flames. This exemplifies what Durkheim (1995) calls collective effervescence, a ritualistic occasion where people congregate together in ways that generate “a sort of electricity … [that] quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation” (217). Impossible to produce on one’s own, such experiences can be important memory generating events that strengthen a sense of being part of a collectivity – here, as shared membership in a socially heterogeneous and self-consciously “winter city.” While being cold posed a continuous tension, sources of heat drew strangers together, from temporary structures such as a tent or a teepee to fire pits of varying shapes and sizes interspersed across outdoor areas. People generally accommodated each other in a solidarity of coldness, making space around a fire for shivering newcomers, giving up seats to children, or offering a warm blanket at an outdoor patio.

While the bodily experience of being cold is physiological, warming up with others gives it a communal dimension. Locating people temporarily outside of privatized spaces with central heating, these islands of warmth created possibilities for intensified, and even egalitarian, integration among strangers. Social statuses, differences that divide people based on their relative ranking according to economic, cultural, and institutional positions, seemed to have no place at such warming circles.

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Click here to read the full chapter from Seasonal Sociology.

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