Yes, this is a winter hymn, and yes, its summer as we’re posting this. We sing about the snow falling over the night and the accompanying stillness. Snow has a way of muffling sound, creating a solemn silence that “invites all wearied nature to repose.” The whiteness of freshly-fallen snow is lovely, too; it covers everything equally and evenly, smoothing out the roughness of nature and making everything look soft and gentle. There’s symbolism in that. Listen to the first verse:
Pale through the gloom the newly fallen snow
Wraps in a shroud the silent earth below
As tho ’twere mercy’s hand had spread the pall,
A symbol of forgiveness unto all.
New snow makes everything white and clean. It stays that way until we tromp all over it, smashing it down and dirtying it, but for those first few moments, everything is pure. It’s no wonder that the Lord chose snow as a metaphor for repentance when He spoke to Isaiah. ”Come now, and let us reason together,” He said. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” The difference between scarlet and white is substantial. Scarlet–really truly bright red–doesn’t appear often in nature, but blood certainly fits the bill. That’s a jarring and unsettling sight, filling the viewer with the sense that something violent and painful has happened before them. And yet, fresh white snow can cover it up in our metaphor. No matter how jarring or gruesome that scarlet is, it can be white again.
As we sing, it’s a symbol of forgiveness unto all. Just as each of us is all too capable of creating those stains of scarlet in our lives, we each have the opportunity to repent and have those stains made white again. And when we take that perfect white snow and stomp it down, filling it with dirt and grime, we can have it made white again and again through the miracle of the Atonement. The miracle is extended to all of us, and new snow, like so many other things in our world, is a symbol given to us to help us remember that gift,
We sing further about the snowy mountains. The author of the hymn writes that these snow-capped peaks remind him of his home in the mountains in the west with the pioneers. It doesn’t come out and say it explicitly, but it sure sounds as though this is a hymn about Utah. Like many Latter-day Saints, I’ve lived in Utah, and while I enjoyed it just fine, it wasn’t a magical land filled with milk and honey for me. We do a perhaps too-good job of glamorizing Utah in the Church, convincing ourselves that everyone there is a faithful member and that things have a way of going right. I’ve heard people tell me that things would be alright for them and that they could live more faithful lives if only they could just get to Utah.
That’s taking things a little too far for my taste, but I don’t think that’s the message this hymn is conveying to us. Rather than setting up Utah as a promised, perfect land, the author is telling us about Utah because that’s where he felt of the Spirit most deeply and came to know his Savior. In this way, it’s like the waters of Mormon as described by Mormon himself. Remember the story? The people of Alma were taught and baptized at the waters of Mormon, where they came to know the gospel. How did they describe it?
And now it came to pass that all this was done in Mormon, yea, by the waters of Mormon, in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon; yea, in the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer; yea, and how blessed are they, for they shall sing to his praise forever. Mosiah 18:30
There’s nothing special about the land itself. It’s what happened there that makes it so memorable to the people of Alma. The author of this hymn is no different. It’s not the mountains, or the valleys, or anything else that makes the land stick in his memory. It’s the time he spent with the Saints, and the experiences he had that drew him nearer to his Savior. That makes Utah his “home, the spot [he loves] so well, whose worth and beauty pen nor tongue can tell.”
Our homes and neighborhoods can be like that for us, too. As we come to know our Savior, our homes will become beautiful to us. Our towns will remind us of drawing nearer to our Lord, and they will make us want to sing praises to Him just seeing them. Seeing the snow on the mountains or on the fields reminding us of the miracle of forgiveness is an added kicker that makes it even more beautiful to our eyes.