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Winter is coming: forget Christmas and fall in love with it

Warning: contains spoilers for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series.

Each season has a scent to herald and define it. Summer’s belongs to sizzling car roofs and sweating rubber tyres, the static residue of thunderstorms following heatwaves, autumn’s to low-hanging mist and rotting leaves, then toffee apples, fireworks and chip fat running into drains. Winter’s at its height is fresh, the icy clean of morning frosts and condensation-covered windows, but its first approach has an anflug of its own – the oily, faint metallic wash of pipes grinding back into use, radiators moaning once more while cold hangs in the air outside. This was the smell that filled my house this morning.

Till January I’m resident again in my home town, a draughty, church-filled thorp near the Scottish border, twenty miles of mountains, lakes and woods to either side. Not since 2008 have I seen winter in here: for the five years in between, I spent those months either in Oxford or Berlin, returning Christmastime to a place transformed without viewing the transformation. Before that, winter was a misery, dark days and long nights holed up, blocked up and fed up, craving sunlight and release. As a teen I loathed this town, longed to escape its smothering isolation – the day my A-levels reached an end, also the day I turned eighteen, I packed a bag and left by train, staying on the road till university – and the darkest, coldest time of year when venturing outside was foolish made it feel more cut off still. Our calendar’s last months, the dying embers of the year, seemed lifeless, desolate, as bare emotionally as nearby forests.

I wonder looking back how much of this reflects the religion of my childhood. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegory for children after which my whole bedroom aged eight was styled, the titular witch Jadis – having corrupted it on its creation – curses all Narnia with a winter that never ends, though Christmas never comes. (Why Narnians ever celebrated Christmas, God’s avatar in their world being Aslan, I still haven’t quite fathomed.) The bleak midwinter makes a familiar metaphor, as in Rossetti’s poem and its hymnal setting, for a world short of salvation: Christmas arrives, both first time round and for believers since, a light in the darkness, imbuing creation once more with life and hope.

The trope isn’t unique to Christianity, whose major rites are at once its most syncretic. Those festivals which fall around midwinter, as festivals are prone to do, have often stood for redemption in some sense or other: feasting after a year’s hard labour, remembering past struggles’ fruits, festooning evergreens and keeping fires lit, reminders the cold season’s atrophy will give way in its turn to spring. Summon your fondest images of winter – aren’t they, in fact, ones of its mitigation? Music and merriment to counteract bleak weather, time with loved ones to stop icy roads and storms cutting us off; fires to beat discomfort back, roast feasts and sweet things to quell emptiness psychic as well as bodily. We console ourselves, in Steven Moffat’s words, that we’re half way out of the dark, toasting our own resilience and emergence soon from the the cold more than we toast the cold itself.

My godless life rather enacts Lewis and Rosetti’s spiritual winter – an atheist, my world has yet to thaw in their terms (or rather, has succumbed to deconversion’s heat death), and my secularity of late runs deeper still. Partially as an introvert, partially tending despite myself toward the ascetic, I’ve little time nowdays for festivity, Christmas included: its trappings and traditions leave me jangled, stressed and out of sorts – longing, if I might half-inch a term from Christian liturgy, for ordinary time. The best December of my life so far, I spent alone two years back in Berlin, 2011′s last weeks pursued in solitude except online, nothing at all of Christmas or much else timetabled in. If this sounds glum, it was the perfect converse: nothing can be a hugely profitable thing to do, and ducking pomp and circumstance made me aware I generally dislike them – on birthdays, solstices or other dates. Berlin’s long freeze, in fact, prompted me to review my thoughts on colder seasons: I now find Narnia’s Christmasless winter quite ideal.

Like atheists, winter requires no redemption. My instinct is if we accepted it – if we focused in simply on feeling winter, instead of self-distracting with egg nog and tinselled trees, trying not to feel it – we just might fall for Jack Frost on his own terms. As the scent of winter’s nearness greeted me, sweeping between the house’s walls, I thought of its barren beauty, like that of deserts and ghost towns: exhalations thick and opaque, vanishing seconds after forming, empty skies clear and crystalline. The shortness of the days is precious, not oppressive, enough to give us pause and make us catch them while we can; being stuck inside, an invitation to focus on what counts. And what wakes slumbering neurons like a brisk morning’s cold snap, kicking the senses into gear, the mind into the present moment?

This is what winter’s bleakness really offers: a chance to re-enter the here and now, less busy and finer-tuned. Instead of seeking ways around it, let’s learn to learn to love that.

Winter is coming. I welcome it.

Comments

  1. says

    Disclaimer: this post is an aesthetic defence of winter, about what benefits can be found in harsh conditions – it’s not a dismissal of anyone’s discomfort with it for mental health or other reasons.

  2. says

    Nah, you’re not convincing me.
    I actually like christmas*, the lights, the trees, the cookies, the christmas markets, the mulled wine, the traditions**

    This is what winter’s bleakness really offers: a chance to re-enter the here and now, less busy and finer-tuned. Instead of seeking ways around it, let’s learn to learn to love that.

    It’s nice that you have a chance to be “less busy”. Most people don’t get that, even if they don’t lift a finger for christmas.

    Why Narnians ever celebrated Christmas, God’s avatar in their world being Aslan, I still haven’t quite fathomed.

    It’s actually more the children’s and decidedly un-christian festival with a father christmas coming along. I always wondered more where they get tinned sardines and toast in a world of eternal winter and zero industry…

    *my atheist catholic friend always says I’m a hipocryte for celebrating it. I tell her the christians stole it, they can’t keep it
    **Which can be anything. The important thing about a tradition isn’t what it is so much as consistency.

  3. lamaria says

    I like winter, I like the cold and the sharp smells, the odd light and the cuddled-up feeling of winterwear. I also like this piece, thank you.

  4. ImaginesABeach says

    I live in Minnesota. Winter starts in November, ends in late March or April, and at least 3 of those 5 months are spent with temperatures near 0 degrees Fahrenheit. What’s to appreciate?

  5. says

    Oh, come on now. A Scottish winter? Easy. Come live on the windswept prairies of Minnesota for a while. Visit in February. Then we shall test your love of winter.

    (Yes, I like it. I intentionally went for a job as far north as I could get, and I really look forward to summer ending and getting back to reasonable temperatures, well below freezing, again.)

  6. shockwaver says

    I’m about the only one I know that loves winter here in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It hit freezing last night and it’s only going down from there! I moved here from Georgia – and I can’t stand the heat. Summer is sticky, humid and hot – winter is cold and clean and crisp. People think I’m nuts! You can dress warmly for any winter weather – but you can only take off so many clothes in summer before the police want to have a chat with you.

    We can have snow on the ground by mid-october – and it will stay until the end of April. Our lows in January and February can reach -40C (which interestingly enough is when the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales line up!) or even colder if you factor in the wind. We’re on the prairies so the wind is ALWAYS blowing. We have to plug our car in at night so a heater can run and prevent the battery/engine from freezing. And it even gets too cold to snow here for most of the winter!

  7. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    Having somewhat recently moved from balmy lake-warmed Ontario to frigid desolate Alberta, I was somewhat surprised to discover I now love winter. Winters here are indisputably colder, I’d never experienced -40 before, but it doesn’t have Ontario’s bleak grey wet iciness. Clear, cold sunny days here, with the sun gleaming off the snow, are brighter by far than any summers back home.

    Also, I work construction, which means summer is an endless grind to finish work and winter is freedom and time to relax. I’ve learned to snowboard (badly) and snowmobile and the Rockies are close enough to visit regularly. Winter is coming, and I couldn’t be happier.

  8. Francisco Bacopa says

    I have seen the weather reports. There is no such season as summer in the UK. Instead you have something much more pleasant. You have three or four months equivalent of what I think of as October, which is the most pleasant month of all down here on the Gulf Coast of the US. Well, pleasant unless there’s a hurricane.

  9. Alex says

    I wholeheartedly agree with your poetic perception of a crisp winter night, having the magnificient stars of the winter sky sparkling above the cool silence of the ice covered village…. an almost spiritual experience. Talking about spiritual…

    …can I have my mulled wine now please? :)

    Fun fact: “Winterfell” is the german word for an animal’s winter coat.

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