Snow days felt magical when I was a child—and not just because of the wonder of waking up to a world transformed or the gift of a day without school. They felt magical because I believed that I had helped to conjure them.
As soon as the forecast hinted at snow, my brothers and I would get to work. First came the ice cubes, upended from their trays and flushed down the toilet, one for each inch of snow. Then our pajamas, put on early (for good measure) and inside out (no matter how itchy the seams). Finally, three spoons, selected with care, stowed under each of our pillows. We knew our classmates had also followed these steps, because we’d all game-planned together at recess the day before. And, chances were, so had other students in schools across the district—maybe even the state, depending on the reach of the storm. We were joining an army of children who for generations, armed with nothing but household supplies, have believed they could change the weather.
Some of the kids from other schools likely added extra superstitions too, such as putting white crayons on the windowsill; others may have remixed the practices I was familiar with, perhaps licking the spoon before putting it under their pillow. But the larger tradition of trying to summon a snow day has persisted among children in the Northeast and Midwest for at least several decades, though the specific history is hard to trace and it’s unclear exactly how widespread it is. The rituals might seem frivolous, but they draw from a rich folkloric heritage, offering camaraderie, hope, and even a sense of control to kids—a group that can often feel powerless.
In my younger years, that promise of power intoxicated me, so much so that I never really wondered about what interests me most now: Where did these practices even come from? When I asked Elizabeth Tucker, a professor at Binghamton University and the author of Children’s Folklore: A Handbook, she pointed me to a few age-old magical principles. Take flushing ice cubes down the toilet or putting white crayons by the window: That’s textbook “sympathetic magic,” or the idea that “like produces like”—that a cold ice cube or white crayon could lead to cold, white snow. This type of occult logic just makes sense to children. The ice cube “goes down to the ocean and it freezes up the ocean,” one 8-year-old Virginian told the Associated Press in 2006. Similarly, Tucker told me, wearing pajamas inside out is a classic “ritual of reversal” meant to overturn the existing order—to replace boring classes with a day spent playing outside, in this case. This works by confusing the “snow gods,” one girl explained to her mom in 2014.
Kids may have reasoned their way to these principles on their own—they’re common because they’re intuitive—or they may have borrowed the ideas from grown-up lore. Adults have been turning their clothes inside out for a long time, possibly for centuries, to ward off curses from fairies, and later to ensure good luck for their sports teams. Or, in the case of putting spoons under pillows, children might be picking up on the mystical place silverware has long occupied in the American imagination. Putting a knife under the bed of a woman in labor has been said to reduce delivery pains. And legend has it that dropping cutlery means guests are on their way; the specific utensil that falls can even tell you who’s coming. (A spoon indicates a child.) Kids aren’t always perfect translators of this more mature sorcery. But all oral traditions change over time. Folklore is a continent- and generation-spanning game of telephone—what may have started as an intricate incantation can eventually become shouting “SNOW DAY!” into your freezer at the top of your lungs.
But when exactly did this game of telephone begin? At what point in the chain did the rituals that we know today arise? Unfortunately, folklore doesn’t offer simple answers. “We don’t care about an original. We don’t care about an author,” Tok Thompson, a folklorist and a professor at the University of Southern California, told me. Finding the ur-child who made the earliest decree that spoons must rest below pillows on the eve of snowfall is not only impossible; it’s just not what folklorists are interested in. Identifying a first depends on record keeping—the antithesis of the person-to-person spread that defines folk legends. By the time something’s been written down, it’s most likely already an established tradition, Thompson said.
The closest you can get to a start date, Thompson told me, is what’s known as the terminus ante quem—a Latin phrase meaning “the point before which.” This is the latest possible date something could have emerged, commonly determined by the first recorded reference to it. According to The Buffalo News, for the snow-day customs we know today, this point may have come in 1994, when a New Jersey newspaper reported on kids wearing their pajamas inside out to summon snow. But if you broaden the scope beyond these specific practices, adult ceremonies to control the weather have been around for millennia. This metaphorical game of telephone echoes back further than we can even fathom.
It might seem strange that these traditions have persisted throughout so much of history. But their longevity begins to make more sense when you consider how they satisfy the basic human desire for control in a life where nothing is certain. The idea that you could ensure the outcome you want if only you, say, wear your pajamas a different way than usual is incredibly alluring, Stuart Vyse, a psychologist and the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, told me. Doing something feels better than doing nothing—even if you’re a skeptic. People think, “I know this is silly, but I’ll just feel better if I do it,” Vyse explained. Young kids, who have fertile imaginations and difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality, tend to truly believe in magic—so the hold these ideas have on them is even stronger. Plus, children encourage one another’s beliefs. The communal fun of carrying out a superstition helps sustain it, and having a shared conviction bonds the kids doing it even closer together, Vyse explained.
Superstitions, especially ones that have lasted as long as these, reveal a lot about the people who hold them: their values, frustrations, and fears. It’s significant, then, that kids’ lore has a spirit of rebelliousness. “Children are told what to do a lot,” Thompson explained. Told to stop playing, to do their homework, to go to school. So of course they’re drawn to rituals that promise a chance to disrupt that order and dictate their own destiny. “Now it’s just silly, but when I was a kid I felt powerful,” one person who was interviewed for USC’s digital folklore archive explained. “Like I could control the weather even though I was just throwing ice cubes out a window.” I remember this feeling well. After our nighttime ceremonies, my brothers and I would usually fall asleep to a powder starting to dust the ground. When we woke up and saw the walls of ice fortifying our house, we knew: We had won. We had made our sacrifices, and fate had answered.