Winter in St. Paul: Culture and Quirks

I’m from St. Paul: Minnesota’s capital city. That’s where the Mississippi River takes a brief loop northward before thinking, “Oh, hell no” and returns to it’s southerly flow, rolling along toward warmer climes near the Gulf of Mexico.

St. Paul: Most Livable City in America

St. Paul claims the title of “Most Livable City in America”. It assumes—if you choose to live there—that you find blizzards and subzero temperatures livable. I don’t. Consequently, I live in Texas when I’m not traveling and return to St. Paul occasionally for visits with friends and those members of my family who are currently speaking to me.

Winter in St. Paul

Ice fishing community, ©Scott Costello

I go back most often at Christmastime, when nostalgia calls and my heartstrings play louder than they do on the Fourth of July. I fervently wish that wasn’t true, because to say the weather is a lot nicer in July in Minnesota than it is in December is like saying whiskey tastes better if you’re listening to Howlin’ Wolf than Weird Al Yankovic. In July, the State’s ten thousand lakes aren’t frozen over and landscaped with ice fishing shacks surrounded by empty cans of Grain Belt beer.

Winter in St. Paul

Nothing says “Merry Christmas” more than a disappointed five year old.

It’s not like I don’t know better. Once upon a time, I drove to my family’s Christmas Eve celebration during a snowstorm in what was—without question—the worst car I’ve ever owned, a circa-1974 light green Ford Pinto. It had floorboards so corroded that my legs were exposed to freezing temperatures and got sprayed with a mix of slush, dirt and road salt. The heater stopped working a few miles into the eighty-mile trip. An oak leaf pasted itself to the windshield wiper with the strength of Gorilla Glue and when I rolled down my window to catch the wiper blade with my gloved left hand to free the leaf, the window fell off its track, disappearing into the door and the glove ripped off my hand into the wind.

“At least I’ve got music,” I said aloud, trying not to cry. Ten seconds later, Zing! flew my radio antenna, off the Pinto into the ditch or maybe onto the road surface of Highway 52 to lie in wait for an unsuspecting tire. When I finally arrived at the party, my dad took one look at me and said, “Maybe you’d like to have a quick shower?” You betcha.

Winter in St. Paul

Ice Sculpting, St Paul Winter Carnival, ©Bala Sivakumar

Keeping out the Riffraff

Because Minnesotans are such hearty folk, they like to say those frigid winters keep out the riffraff, “and don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out.” I reckon everyone there could point out some riffraff they’d like to see gone but who never seem to leave. Like those pesky Republicans. Or ungrateful Democrats.

St. Paul is a bastion of culture and quirk in the Flyover country between the east and west coasts of the USA. Americans fly right over what locals on the ground prefer to call the “Heartland” of middle America. As a result, most outsiders never set foot in the heartland between those wildfire-fanning Santa Ana winds of southern California and the great Satan, New York City.

Winter in St. Paul

1937 St. Paul Winter Carnival Ice Palace, ©Joe Haupt

St. Paul Winter Carnival

A reporter from New York paid a call in the winter of 1885 (on a dare? as punishment?) and wrote that St. Paul was “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation.” So, St. Paulites responded by holding up a collective middle finger, then organized the city’s first Winter Carnival in 1886, complete with a King, an Ice Palace and bob-sledding.

Aside from breaks for the occasional war and worldwide financial collapse, the Winter Carnival continues to celebrate all things winter with parades, a snowplow competition and a Medallion hunt sponsored by the Pioneer Press newspaper, which publishes clues leading to the hidden medallion. Most noteworthy (in my family, at least): my cousin found the medallion one year, and twice I’ve been within snow shovel striking distance of the riffraff who discovered it, thanks to my mom’s first-rate, clue-busting knowledge of the city. The hunt is addictive and the excitement is real, people.

Minnesotans think nothing of staying outdoors in the winter for hours. As much as they love the warmth of a birch log fire in the wood stove, they’ll cheer on tiny, bobble-headed children playing hockey when it’s so cold their breath crystalizes. Even when there are no promises of a medallion to find or fish to catch through a hole drilled in four feet of ice, Minnesotans will pull on thermal underwear and head outside. They put packets of chemicals called “hand warmers” in their boots and gloves which provide barely enough heat to make them believe they’ll survive without losing an extremity to frostbite.

Winter in St. Paul

Drilling for fish, ©Mary Stefanski:USFWS

A few years ago, I flew to St. Paul in December to visit family. I got into town a couple of weeks before Christmas to attend a free concert sponsored by Canadian Pacific Railway’s Holiday Train. The star attraction was Sheryl Crow and the show was held outdoors at a festive railroad siding. My friend Annie and I gazed in a holiday stupor at the train decked out in boughs of holly and dazzling lights. It was two degrees above zero with a light breeze out of the Northwest. Woefully, there wasn’t a bar in sight. Also, it was snowing.

Standing outside for several hours in a December breeze in Minnesota putting the air temperature at minus four degrees windchill is pretty much diametrically opposed to laying on desert sands in an Arizona summer with hand warmer packets in your shorts. Sheryl Crow was a trooper; her hands froze stiff while she played. Seems like her guitars went out of tune within a minute of exposure to the cold. She just laughed, sang and told stories about her kids playing in the snow. Did I mention the concert was free?

To an outsider, this behavior is almost insane. It seems ridiculous to me, too, and I grew up among these lunatics. Even so, when going home I do that crazy stuff too.

I say “going home” even though I moved away decades ago. Even though I have traveled and lived in many places around the world. Because for me, the St. Paul version of home is a touchstone, no matter how hokey it seems. It is the yardstick against which I gauge the rest of the world. When possible, I go home to watch White Christmas with my mom and sing along with Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney. I go to make sure my great-nephews and -nieces grow up knowing who I am. I play cards at an annual holiday gathering of old school friends.

Winter in St. Paul

Annie and I waiting for Sheryl Crow

While no longer brave (or crazy) enough to survive an entire St. Paul winter, I’m the riffraff they allow back in periodically; the one who complains about the weather and the similarity of St. Paul to Siberia. I’m the one hollering, “Why the hell are we standing outside at a railway siding with hot packets of chemicals in our gloves when we could be drinking festive winter sangria by the fireplace?

You should stop sometime rather than flying over St. Paul and her sister city, Minneapolis, on the other bank of the river. While each of the four seasons has its own rewards, only winter will let you truly test your riffraff-ness. Are you up for average low temperatures hovering around zero degrees (if you don’t count the windchill)? Dress in layers and pick up some hand warmers on your way from the airport. Finally, if you really want to find that medallion, tag along with my mom.


Visitor’s information for St. Paul

St. Paul Winter Carnival


  1. Sounds like Sheryl Crow earned herself a few cans of Grain Belt.

  2. This piece is all too real. As a St. Paulite myself, I can hardly believe we stick it out—but it’s what lies beneath that layer of chilling cold that keeps me here.

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