Learning to Embrace Winter
An important note: This post is a meant as an encouragement to find ways to embrace winter. It is not the solution to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which can be a truly crippling condition. Sometimes you can't just muster through, and that's okay. I highly suggest seeking help through a counselor or your PCP if you believe you're struggling with SAD.
In Western Pennsylvania, we don't have those bright blue sky and sunshine winters. Those are the winters I dream about. You know, the places where you wake up and are met with sun sparkling off the freshly fallen snow? Nope, not us. Our winter seems to last almost half the year when you live through it, though the internet says it's merely "3.1" months. And the majority of those days are dreary, dark and gray. Often it feels like a season to just be endured. Around here, even the mention of winter is enough to elicit a grimace and sigh of dread by all those within earshot.
Last fall, as I started to feel a great sense of dread about the quickly approaching winter, I decided that something had to change. Since moving to an island didn't seem feasible and I couldn't stop winter, I had to focus on what I could change. I needed a new approach to winter. Maybe I could even learn to love it? Maybe a little? Love seemed like a strong word. I still wasn't sure I could ever love what sometimes feels like endless months of gray, but I also couldn't spend almost half of my life surviving winter and the other half dreading its arrival. So, maybe I could start with accepting it for what it was and trying to embrace it? Maybe I could work to practice contentment with even this? With that in mind, I decided to look to people who knew far more about long, dark and foreboding winters than I did—the Danes. And guess what? Turns out that they had way of coping with winter that is embedded into their culture: "hygge" (pronounced “hoo-guh”).
For those of you who haven't seen the word "hygge" plastered all over social media, the dictionary defines it as: "A quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture)." It is usually comfort evoked by life's simple pleasures like being wrapped in a blanket. Picture unplugged time with old friends tucked away in a little restaurant or a cozy nook of a home with some dimmed lighting, fire crackling in the background and some delicious mulled cider to boot and we are on our way to hygge. This sounded veryyyyy like something I could get on board with so I scoured the internet for all things hygge and finally bought a little book on the topic which I read while sipping on some tea. Because—well—it seemed more hygge. ;)
While recognizing that "hygge" will not be perfectly executed by an outsider to Danish culture, I took the part I grasped and I started with the cozy. I lit a candle in a darling little holder in my kitchen every morning that it was cold, dreary and the darkness felt too heavy. The small flickering light from the candle seemed to soften the harshness of the elements outside in some way. I liked it. So, I thought of other ways to soften the blow and harshness of the winter. Think warm drinks, seasonal soups, homemade sourdough bread, soft blankets, warm lighting, soup nights with friends, and evening puzzle nights with my family.
For me, hygge was one part of the puzzle. I also started to exercise in the morning even though the sun seemed like it was never going to rise and I didn't feel like it. The endorphins made me feel like I actually woke up that day which was much better than the groggy fog that I had normally felt. Also, on an occasional day here and there, I would just give into the desire to hibernate. It was lovely. The kids and I would have a PJ day, snuggle up, read books together and drink tea lattes. These are my favorite kind of days. (We homeschool so we have a bit more flexibility with this, but you could always hunker down on a Saturday!).The key to a hibernating day is that it's done sparingly, otherwise you just begin to feel a bit like you're in a winter daze and like everything blends together (ask me how I know).
Finally—and I believe most importantly—I got outside. Although not as much as I would like to, I improved. I went for walks when I didn't want to and was always glad I had. I even began to find the subdued colors of the winter sky beautiful in its own way. Who knew that I could enjoy even those muted blueish gray winter skies? Because I knew myself and that I might hide from the cold no matter how much I knew I should get outside for the sake of my mental health, I built in some healthy social pressure. We joined Wild + Free in our area, an outdoor, nature-loving homeschool group. With that wonderful group, we learned to ski, snow shoe, and overall just have fun and play outside no matter the weather. We hiked, sledded and ice skated as a family (often with friends). Thanks to those experiences, I learned that winter could actually be enjoyed, not simply tolerated. That realization almost broke my brain. I found that we could actually be outside for hours comfortably if we dressed appropriately and were active. If we were standing around, it helped to have a warm drink or a warming fire. I started finding that a winter walk was rejuvenating with the cold air. I even came to crave my winter walks in the summer months.
As last winter and even this winter have passed, I have been surprised to see that the small shifts I have made have added up to very different winters than the ones I've had before. I still feel the heaviness of the gray, but I also see the beauty. I had wanted to learn to embrace winter, but I wasn't sure it was actually possible. But, that's the beauty of opening ourselves up to new experiences and working to be present in the moment. Slowly, something shifts. I found little things about winter that brought me joy. I love the crunch of snow under my feet as I walked through the woods. I love the way everything seems just a bit quieter and slower. I like having lots of reasons to light candles. I like how much better warm drinks feel when you've just come inside from the cold. I make our schedule to have our days reflect the season and not fight against it. We made new memories. One of my favorite winter memories is when we went snowshoeing at the local environmental center on a Saturday morning after an ice storm. The icicles hanging from the trees and the sparkling snow were both so beautiful that it felt like a winter wonderland.
My perspective has changed, yes. But— I'll be honest. There are still tough days. This winter has been tougher than last. It has not been a winter wonderland. We have had very little snow to break up the many shades of gray. Some days, the gray has seemed unending. But, I still go outside when I don't want to. I am always glad I did. I light a candle. I exercise. We keep going. Most of the snow-based activities we were so looking forward to just haven't really been possible this year. But, we are making the best of it. The kids sledded in the backyard when we had two inches of snow. And we busted out the ice skates on the little pond in the woods outback one of the few weekends it was actually cold enough to freeze, and it was magical. We have continued our ski lessons with our Wild and Free group despite the warmer than average temperatures and imperfect conditions. We have also kept up our walks and hikes in the woods, which are always good for my soul. I often forget how much better I feel when I am outside in the gray weather compared to being inside staring out at it. But inevitably when I drag my grumpy self outside, my mood lifts and I feel more human after just a few moments.
Anyways, if you're like me, and could use some help with surviving-errr... I mean embracing winter ;) here are some things that worked for me:
First Step: Stop being grumpy about it
Winter is what it is, and I decided I would be happier if I stopped day dreaming of tropical vacations and accepted the shades of gray that were my reality. When I accepted the fact that it was indeed this way here and practiced contentment, I settled into it. And practice I had to. Contentment is not something that is immediately caught, but something that is fostered, tried and practiced until it becomes the reality of our state of being.
Second Step: Find the beauty
It's amazing how when we open ourselves up to seeing things in a new light, we can often find something to wonder at that was there all along. Just watch the world through the eyes of a child discovering it for the first time. Personally, I started noticing how beautiful and layered a winter sky could look in the evening. I began seeing if I could find tracks in the snow. I started bird watching and hung up a feeder because birds were one of the only signs of life I saw in winter. I think I'm what you call a "birder" now? That makes me laugh. (no joke, my husband bought me binoculars and a bird feeder for my birthday. It's soooo real.)
Second Step: Hygge it
Somewhere along the way I had heard of this strange word I never quite knew how to pronounce, and I was intrigued. At first glance, it looked like it involved flickering candles, cozy blankets, homemade treats, warm drinks and a crackling fire... (think cabin in the woods in winter) I mean... what's not to love there?! After reading up on the heart of hygge, it turns out there is far more to this Danish idea than just the cozy photos scattered across Instagram. It has a sense of contentment and enjoyment from simple pleasures enjoyed away from the daily rush with the people you love at its heart. Adding some hygge into your winter could be just what it needed, ushering in a bit of comfort and warmth to a harsher and colder season.
Third Step: Exercise + Eat Healthy
This is important all year, but I think especially in winter–being consistent with exercise and eating healthy really does give you a little boost. For me, this was a game changer. Those endorphins from exercise are a much needed boost when the sun doesn't shine.
Fourth Step: Get Outside
Just do it. It MUST be done. Even if I wanted to cling to my warm home at all costs and felt like a grumpy toddler while putting on my snow boots, I had a feeling this was part of the answer. If I wanted the cozy to feel cozy and not just settle into a feeling of never-ending apathetic "blahness" for the entirety of winter, I had to do the opposite of what I wanted and get outside. I needed to accept that momentary discomfort would be a part of this, but it would be worth it. My body needed this, my mental health needed this. I needed to go outside in the cold even when it made me cold and mad and grumpy to get the little vitamin D that there was to be had. Sometimes, the first time I felt awake all day was when I would step outside for a walk with my kids. If you're like me and know you probably won't actually pull this off, build in some healthy social pressure. Schedule a walk with a friend or make plans to meet up for some sledding with other families. There are so many options!
Fifth Step: Mix it up
Try something new! Think snowshoeing, snowman building, sledding, ice skating, snowball fights, skiing or snowboarding. Take a walk in the woods and appreciate how it looks different than in other seasons. Make winter something to look forward to by having activities that you only do during that season. Let winter shine in its own way. Maybe you'll even begin to see it and enjoy it for what it offers. Do fun things like making snow cones or maple syrup candy with the snow. Have a cozy homebody day and fully accept a day of hibernating with your family or a friend or just yourself with all things cozy and your favorite warm drink. Plan an evening in with friends just to hygge. Embrace the season and focus your meals on comfort foods and steaming soups. Make the hot chocolate for the kids with marshmallows when they come in from playing outside. Plan to take the season slower if possible taking your cue from nature and hunker down on the cold, blustery evenings for some puzzles and board games that you only bust out in the winter. Save projects or find a new hobby/ handicraft or skill you've been wanting to learn until winter (the cozier the better!)
Do you have ways of embracing winter? What are your favorites? I'd love to hear!