Every frosty school run, our lovely lollipop man greets us with “Jack Frost’s been out and about this morning, boys!” – much to the littler one’s delight. (The big boy is a bit too Cool for School these days, but he secretly loves it too.) I also love the idea of a cheeky sprite coming out in the night to cover everything with this beautiful shimmer, just as I love the idea of the Pagans’ Green Man, who watches over all of nature, and symoblises rebirth in the spring and summer. I know where he comes from – but what about the origin of Jack Frost?
The brilliant Rise of the Guardians animated film gives Jack Frost his very own back story – a highly recommended watch, if you haven’t seen it before – but I have always imagined that, like so much folklore, the Jack Frost legend is rooted in the ancient mists of time. I love a bit of myth and legend, so I thought I’d look into it.
To my great surprise, there’s actually no mention of Jack Frost in English literature before 1734, when he appears in a book called ‘Round About Our Coal Fire, or Christmas Entertainments’. This charming book is apparently concerned with “Some Curious Memoirs of Old Father Christmas; Shewing what Hospitality was in Former Times, and how Little There Remains of it at Present.” (So clearly, the talent for reminiscing about the Old Days is not a new one.) In the early chapters, the author describes the season as “when Jack Frost commonly takes us by the Nose”. The presence of this idiom suggests that it was a phrase in common use at the time, and familiar to the audience, although there is no other mention of him in literature that survives; not even in that great father of common parlance himself, Will Shakespeare.
There are many other winter deities from cultures around the world: in Russia, there’s Grandfather Frost; in Germany, they have Frau Holle, who shakes out a winter blanket over the ground; and there were two frost giants in Norse legend called Jockul and Frosti. It’s a possibility that these two names were merged over time to create a single character – but apparently, this is not a widely accepted one. Expert opinion suggests that the name ‘Jack’ is more likely to have come from the by-word at the time for ‘lad’ or ‘fellow’ – which also gave rise to phrases such as ‘jack o’lantern’, ‘jack-a-napes’ and ‘jack tar’, which have enjoyed different degrees of longevity in our language phrasebooks. If a mischievous little chap was coming out at night to cover the ground with frost, it’s quite likely he would have been nicknamed Jack back then.
After this mention in 1734, Jack Frost goes rather quiet in literature; until a veritable explosion of references in Victorian literature, both here in the UK, and in American writing, where he really seems to have caught on. He features in many poems, and even some American Civil War literature – apparently because medical authorities hoped that the winter (or Jack Frost) would kill off the deadly diseases that were sweeping the troops on both sides of the battlefield. Jack seems to have become properly cemented in modern consciousness via a short story by the author of The Wizard of Oz, Frank L Baum, called ‘The Runaway Shadows, or A Trick of Jack Frost’. The little mischief-maker freezes children’s shadows, which then allows the shadows to run off. And his place in our natural folklore has been assured ever since, with depictions in literature throughout the 20th century, and honoured by authors such as Terry Pratchett, in his book The Hogfather.
So although he’s not as ancient as I was expecting, it’s been fascinating to discover that while little Jack may originally have been British, he owes his place in folklore to our friends across the Pond.