Let us beat a hasty retreat. Jump into a hole, down to a cozy warren, deep below the surface.
That’s where the wisdom of winter resides: below the surface. It is there in the warm lair where we hibernate and lay low until it’s safe to come out.
But in that dark space where our body, minds and soul retreat this time of year, a light still burns bright.
Winter is as much about going deep, as it is about finding our way back out the other side.
The astronomical metaphor to keep in mind during these dark and chilling times, is that starting the day after the winter solstice, which this year is December 21, each day gets a bit longer. It’s only by two or three minutes – too incremental to notice – and yet brightness is accumulating every day as the season progresses.
‘Tis also a season of merriment and gift giving. And the season itself contains two gifts: First is a retreat, in order to fundamentally restore oneself. Second is a renewal – a new year that draws a line in the sands of time that we step over to put the past behind and the future optimistically ahead.
The dying of the light
There’s no sugar frosting it: Winter is the season of death. The seasonal memento mori (Latin for “Remember you must die”).
Not only are trees and perennials shedding signs of life, but statistically speaking more people die in the winter. The weather, spread of flu and Covid-19, dips in mental health, heart attacks while shoveling snow – these are all factors and grim reminders to take added care of ourselves and loved ones right now.
Yet nature also reminds us that death is cyclical. Winter only appears to have wiped the slate clean. Life is just less visible. More of a dormant incubation period than the end times, winter being a necessary retreat so life can renew itself.
It’s the retreat that is so delicious – in the embrace of warmth that dispels cold. Winter is full of such seasonal treats: hot chocolate, oatmeal, waffles, hot toddies, rummy egg nog, as well as heavy blankets, fuzzy socks and ugly sweaters. It’s by the fire, with a book or friends and family, that our life feels richer.
Social science supports these feelings. Holding a warm beverage, according to one Yale study, promotes feelings of generosity and caring. The warm light of candles has been shown to boost creativity, and staring at fire induces relaxation and lowers blood pressure.
Norwegians – among the happiest people on earth despite living in such extended periods of darkness – have a word that snugly wraps up this winter philosophy: “koselig” (pronounced “koosh-lee”). It’s a combination of coziness and a connection to nature and others.
Do not go gentle into that good night
In that koselig tradition we find an important contradiction of winter that’s worth embracing — the indolent punctuated by the kinetic. If you first roll around in the snow – as I once did in December’s subfreezing temperatures at Alaska’s Chena Hot Springs north of the Arctic Circle – the giant hot tub you plunge into after is that much more inviting and invigorating.
Winter’s reputation for hibernation is also punctuated with bursts of energy. We think of winter shades of pale and gray but we also associate the season with evergreens and their bright, red berries.
Most trees take the long nap, but holly, pine, fir and spruce bring us unmatched arboreal joy this time of year. Many people even decorate these trees inside their homes with shiny baubles and lights. It’s a tradition that compliments – but doesn’t originate with – Christmas. (Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Druids all had solstice celebrations incorporating evergreen decorations.)
The energy that burns bright in this sleepy season gives it that joy. Winter is as much about lounging in PJs and sipping tea as it is about racing down a mountain on skis or a sled. Winter is lovely but for those who have the opportunity, it can also be loads of fun.
“Always maintain a kind of summer, even in the middle of winter,” advised Henry David Thoreau.
The true meaning of winter
Holidays – those annual rituals that meld familial traditions with more mystical and collective ones – embody each of their seasons. And in winter we kick off with the gift-giving traditions of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas.
The roots of exchanging gifts at this time of year is older than these current traditions. It was ancient Romans who celebrated the winter solstice with Saturnalia, their most popular festival. (On the Julian calendar used by Romans, the winter solstice fell on December 25.)
For Saturnalia, the Romans closed school and work, feasted, played music and gave each other food from the harvest and gifts of handmade crafts. One of the most popular were candles, for their practicality and the symbolism of returning to the light.
What all these solstice-adjacent celebrations have in common is the light. Hanukkah, aka the Festival of Lights, is rooted in a miracle of oil lasting longer than was possible for those keeping alive the flame of rebellion. Kwanzaa – honoring pan-African heritage and culture – is also rooted in a candle lighting ceremony. And Christmas, prefaced by the lighting of candles in an advent wreath, celebrates the birth of Jesus who is the light of the world, according to the Christian faith.
Those holidays are followed by the great restart button that is New Year’s, when we stay up and make noise as witness to time’s odometer flip. Our hope for a better future is at its peak on December 31. We resolve to do better. Everything seems possible for a bright, colorful firework of a moment.
In the US in January, we federally celebrate the legacy of nonviolence and the ongoing human rights struggle embodied by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He was another beacon in the darkness, guiding us toward our better angels and inspiring us to do better.
Christmas quiz: How well do you know these holiday celebrations around the world?
In February we pause and consider the weather prognostication of a groundhog who emerges from hibernation to predict when winter will end. And we pump the bellows on the flames of love on Valentine’s Day.
Before Catholics start 40 days of refusing themselves indulgences during Lent, the festivals of Carnival and Mardi Gras light it up in late February or early March. “Give me chastity and self-restraint,” St. Augustine wrote, “but do not give it yet.” St. Patrick’s feast day on March 17 challenges that self-restraint.
What does it all add up to? What is the season about? The Dickensian-named author Hope MacDonald summed it up when she wrote, “You live through the darkness from what you learned in the light.”
And I would argue the inverse is true as well: By living through the darkness, we find the light that leads us back out.
‘To everything, there is a season’
As the year progresses, try to align your mental and physical activity to the season you’re in. Commune with the change in nature, embrace its reminders. Celebrate the holidays, take in their meanings, enjoy the spoils of whatever time of the year you find yourself.
“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth,” Thoreau wrote in “Walden,” his practical meditation on living seasonally.
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In the spring, break out of the cocoon as life returns in earnest. In summer, get outside, be free and chase happiness like a puppy after its own tail. In the fall, enjoy the riot for the senses and welcome an inward focus as the days get chillier.
And in the winter, go deep inside yourself and get snug and comfortable there if you’re able. This is a dark time – and this winter seems particularly bleak and deadly – but there is always a light of hope. Look for the light, warm yourself by it, and follow it out.