Sunday, December 30, 2012

In the Bleak Midwinter

all pictures taken by my dad at/around our old house in upstate New York

The holidays have passed for me, as they usually do, in a wild blur.  Every year as I think about the Yuletide season approaching, I imagine it being a collage of every perfect moment I experienced in my childhood.  I think there will be snow- I swear there was always snow, at least until I was 9- and I'll get to make snowmen and igloos and go tobogganing (in some imaginary yard, since I don't have one,) and come in and drink hot cocoa in front of the wood stove, while the ice melts from my hair and my cold hands sting from the heat.

I think I'll get to pick the perfect tree, and it will be that kind that I can never figure out that smells really wonderful all the time and not just when you move it, and decorate it while drinking eggnog and listening to carols.  I think I'll get to watch every one of my favorite movies for the season, and spend lots of time just sitting in the glow of the fairy lights, feeling that elusive magic feeling.  I think I'll have plenty of time (and enough money) to go shopping and pick the perfect present for everyone, and get it to them in time.  For some reason, I always think I'll have time to draw and print up a card and send it out to everybody, although that has never happened.

I think there will be plenty of time for baking everything I want to bake, including those cut-out cookies made from a recipe for Italian knot cookies, decorated with red and green sugar.  They take forever to make and I hardly ever get to squeeze them into the busy month of December, but the smell of that dough just rips me right out of the present and back to being four years old.  I can't even remember some of the details of the house where I sat at the dining room table with my mom, rolling out the dough and cutting them into reindeer, but I remember globbing on way too much sugar glaze with a pastry brush and getting the sprinkles all stuck to my fingers.

I always think we'll definitely have time to visit Longwood Gardens, see the enormous trees and dazzling lights and soak in the scent of lilies and jasmine - a near miss this year, as I managed to forget our passes at home when we went down to visit. And I think I'll have a moment to spend on the solstice with some little piece of the natural world, to stand in the trees and watch the gold light of the afternoon sun sinking lower in the sky, to hear dry leaves stirring in the wind, to smell that clear, cold earthy scent and feel close for a minute to something I find so hard to reach these days.

The past six months since we moved have seen a lot of broken traditions, and although it's temporary, it can be hard not to get a little down about it.  Almost no one's holiday experience matches that perfectly magical ideal built up over a lifetime.  No matter how great they do turn out to be - a wonderful party with friends, time spent with family, a night spent basking in front of a real wood fire - it can be hard to avoid a bit of post-Christmas depression.

And here's the problem with that.  It's not the bleak "mid-winter."  Winter just started!  And it's going to keep on dragging on a lot longer than we'd like, if we cut off all the celebration.  The holly and the ivy will be here all year.  The snows are just beginning.  And even though the days are getting longer, there are a lot of long, cold nights ahead.  Nights that could use some chestnuts roasting on the open fire, some wassailing and cheer.  There's all this build-up to the holidays and then, too suddenly, the day is done and the lights come down and there's months ahead with nothing to celebrate.

Well, I'm of the opinion that there's always something to celebrate.  So I hope you won't begrudge me a few more holiday recipes in the coming weeks, because I may have been too busy to get them in before Christmas, but January needs them too!  Winter is a season that craves festivity, things to keep us warm and raise our spirits and let us continue to appreciate the beauty of nature after the poinsettias are put away.  Even among Earth-based traditions, all the winter holidays are really about getting back to summer.  We celebrate the return of the sun on the solstice and the promise of spring at Imbolc in February.  It makes sense, of course, because for ancient peoples the return of the sun and the promise of spring were a very real matter of life and death.  Everything centered on that promise.

I certainly appreciate the importance of this perspective, but growing up with the privilege of living surrounded by nature without being totally dependent on the whims of weather for survival, I came to appreciate the very long winters a little differently.  When you could have snow nearly six months of the year, celebrating spring in late March would be a bit premature.  In my childhood winter was a thing that came and stayed.  But within the months of widwinter, things were not stagnant.  The Earth might be sleeping, but there was new beauty to see every day. The way the clouds on a snowy day fill up the whole sky, swallowing the sun so the world seems to be lit by an ethereal glow that comes from everywhere, reflected on the snow-covered ground.  That tinny scent in the air before the flakes begin to fall.  The intricate shapes of the bare branches at the top of the forest, touching the sky, sometimes black with melted snow, or lined on one side with two inches of downy white, or coated in crystalline ice.  Every glimpse of color against the white and gray and brown of the world seemed so brilliant - a shrub with deep red, waxy bark, a cardinal landing at the feeder, the sunset melting in pink and blue and purple.

There's always beauty in the world that begs celebration, and finding the time and the ways to take part in that is one of the most important goals in my life; whether it's throwing myself into celebrating some very old holidays, or creating new ones, or just trying to bring a little of that spirit of joy and appreciation into the rest of the year.  So I wish all of you a happy winter, a happy new year, and festive fun for the months to come.  And if you really can't shake the winter blues, remember: every day there's a little more sunshine.


  1. I very much enjoyed this, and appreciated the uplifting words~ Thank you!

  2. Beautiful! Really well written and inspiring. Thanks from me, too! (from Colleen, Kitt's aunt)

  3. Wow, very well written and yeah, even though the days are getting lighter/longer they sure don't feel that way on the inside, so thank you for sharing your perspectives on this "trying times". :)