For Adults, Snow Days Feel Like Divine Permission to Rest

George Silk / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

One time in college, I had to stay up all night to write a paper. It happened to be the same night that a blizzard covered New York City in more than two feet of snow, at the time the largest snowfall in the city since record-keeping began in the late 1800s. The snow had been predicted by late afternoon the previous day. I remember the festively dystopian feeling of the grocery store, where people were making a desperate run on bread, milk, and snacks, as though every grocery store in New York wasn’t absolutely going to stay open no matter how much it snowed. Back home, I sat down at my desk in front of a window that looked out over the street. It got to be a little after midnight, and the snow still hadn’t started. Maybe the reports were wrong, I thought. Maybe no snow was coming, and we’d all made fools of ourselves getting worked up over the idea of a snow day, hoping for school, work, and life to shut down.

But then the whole neighborhood went quiet. There was still no snow yet, but the cold seemed to bunch and gather and buzz. For a few hours, I watched the light change, flattening and growing fuzzy and opaque. Sometime around 3 a.m., tiny snowflakes began to appear, drifting slowly downward. Then, all at once, snow was pouring out of the sky, Christmas-card fluffy, in a torrent so thick that it wiped out my view of the buildings across the street. What a relief, I thought, and I didn’t know why I thought that. But it was a relief, like water, or sleep, or crying in a hot shower.

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I had no business feeling anything about the snow. It changed my circumstances not at all—I still had to write a long paper in a short amount of time. I would have to finish it even if class was canceled. The worry that sat at the bottom of my stomach shouldn’t have been lessened by the snow. My life went on just the same. I didn’t go outside to play in the snow. I stayed inside and did the work I would have stayed inside to do anyway. But still, the world felt softer than it had before, welcoming and full of wonder, as out my window I watched families walk to the park and snowplows clear the streets. I look back on that snowstorm as one of the best things that happened that year. If you asked me to explain, I couldn’t tell you why.

I talked with a lot of people about snow days in the past couple of weeks, while fruitlessly waiting for one in New York City, where I live. When I put out a call on social media for interviewees, the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Magical was a word that came up over and over again, as people tried to describe the quality of the light, the softness, or the silence. Everyone, it seemed, felt a whole lot of something about snow days—some shared, undefinable mood. The year after that snow day in college, a friend of mine and I started using the term snow day to evoke a particular emotional state or type of experience. These experiences rarely involved actual snowy weather. We meant it as a way to refer to anything that offered the permission and relief of extra time, the chance to pause and wonder at the beauty of the natural world without needing to do anything about it. A snow day is a big mood, something larger and stranger than the sum of its parts.

I grew up in California, where it almost never snowed, so I’ve never had the experience of being blessed with an unexpected day off from school after an overnight snow. But for kids in more wintry locales, snow days bring two stages of fun: the excitement and hope of waiting to find out if school is canceled, and the joy and relief when it is. Dana Pecharo, a public-school teacher in the Bronx, told me that her “favorite pre-snow activity is reading all the kids’ tweets to [Bill] de Blasio telling him that he needs to cancel school or he’s dumb.” When I used to tutor high-school students, I sometimes got to text them that our meetings would be canceled because snow was predicted for the next day. No one in my life has ever had such a joyful reaction to any text I have ever sent.

For many adults, snow days are steeped in childhood nostalgia. “I can trace my life in snow days,” Samuel Ashworth, a journalist in Washington, D.C., told me in an email, “from the delirious, nose-smushed-to-the-window happiness of childhood to the willful reversion to childishness as I got older (athletic snowball fights, etc), to the thrill as a parent of finally getting to see my own kid experience something that for many of us remains our most lucid, sharp-edged childhood memory.” For those privileged enough to have had a childhood where a day off from school was a day off from everything, a snow day was pure in a way that nothing is any longer as an adult. The feeling that snow brings up may be about reaching back toward that nose-smushed-to-the-window childhood memory.

But many adults who never experienced snow days as children love them too. A snowstorm in a particular location grinds Twitter and Instagram to a halt in a way that few global political catastrophes even manage. Instead of learning that it’s snowed overnight by looking out my window at a newly white world, I now get the news by scrolling past one ecstatic tweet after another. Twitter loves snow; snow is all-caps, multiple-exclamation-points weather. Instagram, of course, loves snow, so photogenic and yet impossible to truly capture, and the sense that comes with it of an event, of really being somewhere with something happening. On a snow day, there are certainly some people complaining about the snow, but there are always more, or at least louder, people rhapsodizing about it.

It’s possible that the only magic snow actually brings is getting people out of work. Josh Ong, who works in marketing in New York City, describes snow days as “the time equivalent of playing with house money.” Snow days are a special kind of day off—an unexpected gift that can’t be planned for, only appreciated when it’s given. “What makes it truly special is that it’s as if nature has just given you permission,” says Brigid Schulte, the author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. “You can’t run around doing errands. You can’t get to work or school. It’s the time that’s the gift, not the snow.” Being “forced” to take time off, even for just a day or a few hours, is a mercy akin to finding out that school has been canceled. A snow day can be a temporary release from the obligation to perform how hard we are working. “In our work-focused culture, we can feel so guilty about not being productive,” Schulte says. “Even our leisure tends to be productive—running errands, running to classes and events, running to get in a quick workout. So to have a day when even the gym is closed, where we can’t help but be ‘unproductive,’ is like getting a taste of what true leisure time ought to be like.”

Of course, for many non-salaried workers, missing work also means not making money. To them, snow days are typically not a gift but a burden, far more stressful than relieving. A snow day can also be a nightmare for parents who have to unexpectedly find child care, for disabled people facing a slippery commute, and for people who simply hate snow and the complications it brings. The “magic” so many people refer to is certainly not a universal experience of this weather. Snow is objectively inconvenient, and far worse than inconvenient for many.

Nevertheless, lots of people for whom snow just means trudging to work through the snow still love it. Suzan Eraslan, a real-estate broker in New York City, describes one such experience: “At work, I’m often outside showing apartments. Sometimes clients will cancel if it’s snowing, but since moving in New York is such a time-sensitive activity, there are a lot of times when I’ve been walking around with someone I’ve just met in the snow, and it’s often a bonding experience. It’s kind of magical to be one of the few people out on the streets when it’s snowing. It makes me feel like I’m on some kind of adventurous journey.”

Inconvenience can even, paradoxically, fuel the joy of a snow day. “If I do have to go outside, I feel virtuous and like I’m accomplishing something—See? I’m going out! I’m driving in the snow! I made it to school!—even if it’s something I normally do everyday without a thought,” says Tyne Tyson, a medical student in Omaha, Nebraska. When snow doesn’t offer a respite, it at least grafts a cinematic background onto the usual daily tasks.

Snow days are a unique combination of the ethereal and the mundane—streets paved with glittering diamonds, boots filled with icy water. Snow is beauty juxtaposed with annoyance, a magical vision that brings mostly negative consequences. The joy that snow offers might be because its appeal has nothing to do with utility. Snow is an excuse to focus on beauty instead of productivity, adventure instead of achievement. There’s no good logical connection between the weather and the relief, except that we want an excuse to pause life. Snow days are the opposite of obligated busyness, when nothing can get done, when the world looks beautiful and that’s enough.