Winter brings holiday cheer, fresh snow and lacy designs on frosty windows, plus a suite of seasonal celebrations that span the globe. Whether you’re lighting a menorah or baking cookies for Santa, this is a time to look forward to. Outside, there are animals to track, bonfires to light and blizzards that turn the world into a sparkling playground.
For many, though, winter can mean seasonal depression, and it’s arriving at a time when people are already feeling the strain of the pandemic. But research shows that finding things to look forward to may help offset the blues—consider this list of cold-weather fun a starter kit designed to spark your winter joy.
Winter world traditions
1. Sprout a “St. Barbara’s Twig.” Bring some spring inside your home with the blooming German tradition of cutting a “St. Barbara’s Twig,” or Barbarazweigerl. Start by snipping a few branches from a cherry or peach tree on December 4, the feast day of Catholic St. Barbara.
Next, place the branches in a vase of water. With a bit of luck, it should be covered with flowers by Christmas Day. According to German folklore, the household member with the most blossoms will get married in the coming year!
2. Learn the seven principles of Kwanzaa. The African American and African diaspora celebration of Kwanzaa stretches from December 26 through New Year’s Day, a time to honor ancestors and reflect. Each day comes with a principle such as “umoja,” or unity, and “Imani,” or faith. The principles, in the language Kiswahili, invite family conversations about values, purpose and meaning—an important way to reorient in this tumultuous time.
3. Zoom with Santa. Let’s face it: No one wants St. Nick to come sliding down the chimney in the middle of a pandemic. (We’re trying to social distance, here.) But that doesn’t mean missing out on the Santa experience altogether. Like people around the world, Santa has gone virtual, so you can schedule one-on-one videochats before the holiday arrives.
4. Make mulled wine (or cider). Steaming mugs of mulled wine are a highlight of visiting European Christmas markets, where shoppers come to snack on seasonal treats and shop for gifts. Bring that heart-warming scent into your home by making your own, best prepared over low heat or in a slow cooker. Prefer not to drink alcohol? Throw a spoonful of whole spices — cinnamon, cloves, allspice and orange peel are great — into a pan full of cider for a sweet treat.
5. Stay up all night—on the longest night of the year. Celebrating the year’s longest night — the winter solstice — is an ancient tradition. Really ancient: Stone Age people built monuments that align with the winter solstice sunrise. This year, though, mark the occasion Iranian-style with Shab-e Yalda traditions.
On the night of December 21, gather your household to stay up all through the long night. In Iran, the celebration might include reading poems by the lyric poet Hafez, plus endless cups of tea or sweet sharbat. Key treats on a Shab-e Yalda table include nuts and dried fruit, along with fresh fruits such as watermelon, pomegranate and persimmons.
For some, the fruits have deeper symbolism. Watermelon is said to protect against winter disease, while the bright red of pomegranate seeds represents the warmth of life.
6. Whip up a latke feast. Crisp, fried rounds of potato pancakes are stars of Hanukkah celebrations, often served with piquant dollops of apple sauce and sour cream. They’re a perfect way to mark the festival of lights, which goes from sundown on December 10 to sundown on December 18 this year.
Whip up a batch to share with your family and friends, and remember that the treat symbolizes a long-ago miracle—Hanukkah celebrations around the world feature golden, fried foods to recall an ancient menorah, or lamp, that burned for eight days on a single jar of oil.
7. Make your own holiday decorations. Whether you’re religious or not, tricking out the house in seasonal décor helps mark winter as a time of year worth celebrating. Start with a few folded-paper snowflakes for the windows, or gather some greenery to make a holiday wreath.
Stud a fresh orange with cloves for pomander balls that fill the house with a spicy-sweet scent, then upcycle leftover glass jars into a colorful Kwanzaa kinara. (Kinara means “candle holder” in Kiswahili.)
8. Find animal tracks in the snow. While the winter world can seem quiet, there’s a lot going on in the animal kingdom this time of year. To learn more, make the most of fresh snowfall, when even the tiniest animal track shows up clearly.
The itsy-bitsy deer mouse leaves bounding footprints, often with a thin groove left by a slender tail. “Perfect walkers” such as deer, moose and fox place their back feet carefully in the tracks of their front feet. Pick up a basic guide to animal tracks, and you might be surprised who you find passing through the winter landscape.
9. Go cross-country skiing or snow shoeing. With a pair of snow shoes or cross-country skis, you can glide or walk right over the top of fresh snowdrifts. Your muscles provide the momentum, so both sports are great ways to stay fit during the winter—one hour of cross-country skiing uses the same amount of energy as 2.5 hours of downhill skiing.
Need another reason? While tickets to access ski resorts can have sky-high prices, many cross-country ski and snow shoe areas are inexpensive or free.
10. Check out the winter sky. Summer nights might seem ideal for stargazing, but winter is prime time for would-be astronomers. That’s because cold, winter night skies have far lower moisture levels than a balmy summer evening, so there’s less haze to blur your view of the heavens.
And while long, winter nights have a bad rap, they have a bonus for star-gazing families: You can head outside to spot the moon and stars before bedtime, no sleepless nights required.
11. Find the nearest sledding hill. Snow turns the world into a ready-made playground. Make the most of it by heading to a nearby hill with anything that slides. You can use a cookie sheet, inner tube, cafeteria tray, boogie board or a store-bought sled. The old-fashioned kind on rails does fine on hard-packed surfaces, but consider a saucer for greater versatility.
12. Make a snow sculpture. Sure, you could make a classic, three-ball snowman. But that overlooks snow’s nearly-endless potential as a creative medium.
While making a full-blown snow sculpture takes a bit of planning, your prep work will pay off in credibility with your neighbors. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out highlights of the International Snow Sculpture Championships held in Breckenridge, Colorado each year. There, artists turn the cold stuff into mystical creatures and modern art.
13. Maple sugar on snow. (Pickle optional.) Maple sap—the starting point for making maple syrup—won’t start running until it’s nearly spring. But a winter snowstorm is a perfect time to whip up a favorite treat called sugar on snow, or maple taffy.
To make it, all you’ll need is pure maple syrup, a heavy pot, clean snow and popsicle sticks. After boiling the syrup until it reaches “soft-ball stage,” pour it onto the snow and roll it up into a chewy, sweet lollipop. (Here’s a recipe with more detail.) Eat as-is or pair with a tart dill pickle spear like they do in Vermont.
14. Read a book that’s full of snow and ice. Curling up with a good book is a cozy delight, even more so when you’re reading about howling winds, winter adventures and nature’s wonders. You could fill a bookshelf with great winter reads. Start with the forthcoming “Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World,” by journalist Andrea Pitzer, which relates the Arctic expeditions of explorer William Barents.
If you prefer your snowy tales with a pack of pups, opt for “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube,” by dogsled racer Blair Braverman. Not that winter is all about human exploits. For a meditation on the beauty of the far north, Barry Lopez’ “Arctic Dreams” is a classic; to learn about how animals survive and thrive in the snow try “Winter World” by biologist Bernd Heinrich.
15. Write a list of wintry things you love. A recent study by Stanford psychologist Kari Leibowitz found that winter depression correlates not just to dark, cold and snow but to mindset—the set of beliefs an individual holds about the season. The good news? Mindset is flexible, and a good way to change your mind is to focus on things you appreciate.
Leibowitz suggests creating a list of all the wintry things that make you happy, whether baking cookies, streaming movies or playing in the snow. Stick that list to your fridge, and you’ll have a daily reminder of how special the season can be.
16. Hot chocolate bonfire outside. We know the risk of Covid-19 transmission is lower outdoors, but how can you stay warm during a socially distanced gathering? One answer is sharing a crackling, hot bonfire, preferably with a side of hot chocolate.
Bring your own thermos and cups to avoiding sharing germs, as well. If you don’t have a safe place to build a fire at home, call a local campground to see if you can book a site for the day.
17. Make your home a little hygge. While Scandinavians are famously outdoorsy, warming up after a freezing walk is part of the winter fun. Enter hygge, a Norwegian and Danish word describing a cozy, comfortable feeling of well-being.
When it comes to home décor, hygge translate to design that’s all about creating a comfy nest. To add some hygge to your home, try lighting candles, pulling out a fuzzy throw blanket, hanging twinkly lights and baking a treat that will fill the air with spice.
18. Plan a holiday-movie marathon. If you’re low on holiday cheer, lining up a holiday movie spree is a good way to top up. Whether you go for the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” romantic favorite “Love, Actually” or the Christmas-action flick “Die Hard,” there is sure to be a happy ending and at least one Santa hat.
To share the love — and occasional cringes — of holiday movies with people outside of your household, send out invites for a virtual watch party. You can use services such as Netflix Party, Scener or Zoom, or just keep a group chat going on a separate screen.
Take care of yourself
19. Cultivate a (small) yoga habit. Studies show weekly yoga sessions boost mood and ease mental distress. If you’re like most people in the world — who are very stressed out right now — you could use the extra help this winter.
A quick, 5-minute morning routine can offer a positive start to the day, while a pre-bedtime stretch helps ease you into restful sleep. The most effective way to start a new habit is to replace an old one, so try using yoga as a stand-in for something you’d rather quit, such as doom-scrolling the news first thing in the morning.
20. Make a better-sleep resolution. Looking for an affordable, sure-fire way to better health? Get some sleep. It’s good for your immune system, mental health and cognitive function. (If you need more reasons to prioritize sleep, here are 10.)
Even if you’re someone who struggles to fall or stay asleep, it’s likely you can improve your rest by sticking to a sleep hygiene regime. Things that really help include a regular bedtime, limiting caffeine and readying your bedroom for sleep. Making and sticking to a sleep resolution will pay off in your daily well-being.
21. Start a gratitude journal. This has been a hard year. But focusing on gratitude this winter doesn’t require pretending that everything’s peachy—instead, it’s all about looking for beauty, goodness and joy even amid hardships. Starting a gratitude journal makes that perspective a habit, one that can pay off in happiness.
You can use pen and paper to record a few things you’re grateful for each night before going to bed. If you need some extra structure, sign up for a virtual gratitude challenge created by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
Connect to loved ones
22. Send a holiday cookie care package. This one pays off twice. First, fill your home with the happy aroma of baking sweets, whether you’re making spicy gingerbread or mellow sugar cookies in seasonal shapes. Then, spread the joy by bundling your treats into a feel-good box for someone you love. (Here are some tips on mailing cookies.)
23. Plan a virtual dance party. Long winter nights are perfect for dancing, which brings serious health benefits without the routine workout. Even better if you share it with friends and loved ones, who can show off their moves in the comfort and safety of their own homes.
You can find plenty of tips online for hosting a family or virtual dance party, along with holiday playlists you can shake your body to in seasonal style. If your crew is a little shy about freestyling, consider using a dance routine you can all move to. The video game series “Just Dance” offers choreographed songs on their YouTube channel, including holiday classics “Jingle Bells” and “Last Christmas.”
24. Handwrite some “gratitude notes.” After holiday gifts comes a flurry of thank-you notes. But there’s no need to wait for presents to express your gratitude for people in your life, whether they’re loved ones or people who are helping your community. (Hello, essential workers!)
On a dreary-weather day this winter, sit down with pen and paper — or splash out for some cool cards — and write them out by hand. Think of specific things you’re grateful for, whether it’s an action that affected you or their shining personality.
Just like keeping a gratitude journal, you can boost your mood by focusing on what you’re thankful for. And when someone opens your hand-written note, you’ll improve their day, too.
25. Volunteer to help your neighbors. Lend a hand in your community to brighten the winter for everyone, since helping others is shown to help us weather stressful times better. This time of year, that can mean shoveling your neighbor’s car out from under a fresh snowfall, or delivering a casserole to someone who could use a home-cooked meal.
Need more ideas for winter-ready volunteering? Knit a warm hat or blanket for donation to Project Linus or Knots of Love; if you’re re-organizing, watch for high-quality winter clothing you can donate to a local coat drive.
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And remember that helping out might be as simple as a phone call. Many find winter a challenging time of year, and the pandemic has taken a severe toll on mental health.
Friends can ease the strain. Pick up the phone to reach out to someone you know, and it could be just the thing they need to make it through.
Jen Rose Smith is a writer based in Vermont. Find her work at jenrosesmith.com, or follow her on Twitter @jenrosesmithvt.