My First Winter in Toronto Was Colder Than I Could Have Imagined—But One Snowfall Made it All Worthwhile

When I moved to Canada from Sudan, I didn't quite think snow was real. Seeing it for the first time was like magic.

First Toronto winter - Winter sun breaks through the snow-covered fir branchesPhoto: Shutterstock

“Elamin, isn’t it special?”

In 2000, when I was 12 years old, I left my home in Sudan for Canada. It was July and well over 20 C when I landed at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. To me, it was freezing cold.

I was mentally prepared for Canada to be chilly. I didn’t know that it would be so cold in July, and I most certainly did not know about a thing called wind chill. That the wind could affect the speed with which the human body loses heat was certainly not something they’d put in the immigration brochures for Canada. My father, who had already been in the country for four years, explained the concept of heating to me, and so, as we drove down the 401 to my new home, I asked if he could raise the temperature in the car.

Suffice to say, by the time winter rolled around, I was still learning. And all the lessons I’d been taking in were leading up to a big moment.

That moment came in the middle of eighth-grade English, sitting in Mrs. O’s class, while she read us Lord of the Flies. While I was trying to make out what Jack or Ralph were up to in the story, I heard my classmates’ excited sounds and I looked outside. And there it was: first snow.

After the mild chatter went through the classroom, Mrs. O sought to bring the class’s attention back to the matter at hand: those British boys and their inner beasts. But not me. I was transfixed, staring out the window as light flurries fell from the sky and gently melted on the schoolyard. It was something I’d seen a million times in movies and on TV, and I’d never quite believed it was real. But there it was: in the clouds, ice crystals really could stick together, really could form snowflakes and those snowflakes really could—did—fall from the sky. It looked surreal and dreamlike. I was overwhelmed.

Mrs. O realized that this was the first time I’d ever seen snow. In an act of profound generosity I will never forget, she put the book down and, beaming, said, “It’s Elamin’s first snowfall. Elamin, isn’t it special?”

My classmates, who knew I was a recent arrival, studied my face, trying to take in the event through the eyes of someone who had never seen it before. Most of them had a dozen winters under their belt. I was catching up. 

The teacher invited me to the window so that I could have a closer look. Another kid, Mike, came too, and said, “Look, this is really exciting. But it’s nothing compared to what’s coming.” The warning sounded dejected—I could hear the resignation in his voice.

Just then, Mrs. O decided to let us go outside for recess a few minutes early, maybe because she lost her place in the book, but more likely for my benefit, so I could study the falling snow a little longer. 

Mike was right—I had no idea what was coming. But in that moment, winter was magic.

Learn the story behind one family’s funny Christmas stocking tradition.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada