Snow-day traditions: Superstition or ‘sympathetic magic’?

Snow-day traditions are fun ways to conjure a day off from school. For a folklorist, the complexity of tradition goes much further than an act of fun.

A young girl wearing her pajamas inside out puts a spoon under her pillow.
A spoon under your pillow is a common snow-day tradition. Abby Butler/Kicker

Abby Butler

Children and adults alike dream of a day off school to go play in the snow or to stay cozy inside with board games and movies.

Waking up to a snow day can be a pleasant surprise. 

But for the kids, it means so much more.

Whether they put a spoon under their pillow, wear their pyjamas on inside out, flush an ice cube down the toilet, or place a white crayon in the freezer, some kids take matters into their own hands.

A young girl holds a spoon full of ice cubes
Emma Michaels, 6, holds a spoon filled with ice cubes, ready to flush down the toilet. Submitted photo

Brad Michaels works as a radio host for Hot 99.1. It was before the first major snowfall in January that his daughter Emma, 6, came home from school talking about the snow-day traditions. 

Brad plays a clip of his daughter talking about the traditions.

“Put a spoon underneath your bed,” she said. “And the next morning there will be a lot of snow, maybe, and then you don’t need to go to school tomorrow.’”

“She was pretty excited, I gotta tell ya”, Brad said 

On the radio the morning after, he spoke about the traditions his daughter shared, and many listeners called in with their own versions.

Brad says the excitement that kids experience is a reason to get excited, too.

“If the kids are going to get excited about something as simple as a snow day, then you got to relish that moment.”

“I was also a little bit jealous that we didn’t do anything like that when we were kids.”

Dr. Holly Everett sits at her desk
Folklorist Holly Everett says snow-day traditions can represent “rites of reversal” – or even “sympathetic magic.” Abby Butler/Kicker

Dr. Holly Everett is an associate professor at Memorial University, as well as the head of the folklore department. She has an extensive knowledge of tradition.

In the world of folklore, there are categories that traditions can fall into. One of them is known as rites of reversal.

“You turn something inside out to try and change a situation or change your luck,” said Everett.

She sees a connection between turning your pyjamas inside out and an old Newfoundland tradition.

In the past, people would turn their clothes inside out when going into the forest to protect themselves from fairies. Turning things inside out is an attempt to change an outcome, which is exactly the goal with pyjamas inside-out to cause a snow day.

The desire for control is evident in another category – sympathetic magic.

This is when people develop routines over time as an effort to have control over various aspects of their life.

The tradition of flushing ice cubes down the toilet is an imitation of what you want to see on a larger scale outside, and if successful, it leaves kids feeling accomplished.

“As a kid particularly, you don’t have a lot of control,” said Everett. “Things are pretty well set in terms of what you’re supposed to do, but in these small instances maybe you can, you know, turn things in your favour.”

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