I knew that winters in the Midwest were going to be rough.
Before moving to Ann Arbor, we lived in Southern California, and we lived in Colorado before that: both perpetually sunny spots. When we moved here in July, hot and sticky as it was, I could already feel myself bracing for the December-March stretch. It isn’t the snow that bothers me; I think white landscapes and lacy snowflakes are beautiful. It’s not the cold that bothers me either; I like bundling up. Clear, cold days with an icy-blue sky are delightful. It’s the gray that gets to me.
This week, we’ve been blessed with a few sunshine-y mornings, but prior to that, we had not had a sunny day since November 13th. That’s half of November, all of December, and nearly all of January…without really ever seeing the sun.
Seasonal affective disorder is a real thing, and it’s sneaky. It lives in the corner of your eye and the back of your mind, not a catastrophe, but an accumulating discontent. It’s a chilly layer that settles over the normal stresses and pressures of life.
Last winter was the first time I’ve ever experienced SAD (gosh, even the acronym is terrible). My strategy was to eat vitamin D gummies and never to look at the sky. I rebelled against the weather by doing things like buying summery flowers and cooking out-of-season produce (spinach salads with blueberries! zucchini fritters! guacamole!). I listened to upbeat music on my walks to campus and burned my Hawaiian luau candle, aggressively ignoring the sky. I guess I thought that if I could put blinders on and pretend like it wasn’t winter, I would feel better.
But I didn’t. I felt worse.
Out-of-season produce is watery and bland. Summery sights, sounds, and smells throw winter into sharper focus by contrast, making you wish you could fast-forward to June. The eternal gray blanket of sky cannot be ignored. People here told me that winter was just something I’d have to grit my teeth and endure, and that the region’s soft pastel springs, golden summers, and brilliantly crisp falls would make up for four sunless months. That didn’t sit well with me.
And then last semester, around the time the last leaves were falling, I heard about hygge (pronounced HOO-gah), a Danish word that kinda-sorta translates as “the art of coziness” and that I’ve seen used as nearly every part of speech. It’s the way people in the planet’s far north make peace with their winters, which are much longer, darker, and colder than Michigan’s. I was surprised to learn that people in Scandanavian countries actually love winter and look forward to the season because of hygge.
In material terms, hygge can be a thick, warm blanket, nubbly woolen socks, worn-in yoga pants, a steaming cup of hazelnut coffee, a balsam wood-scented candle, a bowl of butternut squash soup topped with toasted pine nuts, a crackling fire, a warming sip of Scotch, the dog-eared pages of a favorite novel, rosy light from a table lamp. But everything I’ve read so far insists that the concept of hygge extends to the immaterial; it is created by spending quality time with people you love: warm hugs, curling up on the couch, and deep conversation late into the night.
Cultivating hygge can be a way to actually enjoy winter; it involves doing, making, cooking, drinking, and creating things that take advantage of the cold and dark. There are whole books written about this subject (see here, here, and here), but here’s a short list of what I’ve been doing to add a little hygge to my life. By the way, my list was largely inspired by this great post about 29 ways to enjoy winter.
- Create a warm atmosphere with no overhead lights; instead, use lamps, Christmas lights, and candles. I ordered a whole bunch of candles from P.F. Candle company, and I burn them all the time. My favorite post-work activity is to curl up on the couch beneath a cozy blanket with my current novel in hand and burn one of these candles. There’s no better way to enjoy a cold, gray day, because candles just aren’t as fun to burn during the summer. P.F.’s teakwood and tobacco is maybe my favorite thing I have ever smelled.
- Cook seasonal foods in my Le Creuset Dutch oven. My mom bought me a Le Creuset pot over Christmas, and it is *hands down* my favorite thing in my kitchen. I use it make golden, crusty bread, bubbling soup, Moroccan root vegetable tagine, slow-cooked marinara sauce, and lots of other warmly satisfying recipes. Tim and I call it the “magic pot” because everything I make in it turns out amazing. I don’t try to cook summery foods during winter anymore. I miss summer produce, but I always forget that citrus is in season during the winter; grapefruits and mandarins are a great way to add brightness to wintry dishes (lemon-mustard glazed salmon, anyone?).
- Listen to Icelandic music. It took Tim months to convince me to listen to his favorite band, Árstíðir, and I have long made fun of him for being such an uber-hipster about his music choices. But I admit: when you are walking through flecks of freezing rain in a gray cityscape, with threadlike tree branches painted against a pearl-gray sky, there is something perfect about cold, melancholy music. It’s way better to listen to music that fits the setting than upbeat music that clashes and makes you long for summer.
- Make plans to meet up with friends for dinner parties, games, and movie nights. We’re awfully social in the summertime, but our sociability declines through the fall as the school year gets busy. Christmas brings a rounds of parties for which we clear our schedules. But then January hits, and not only are we seeing friends less, we’re also suffering the self-imposed sanctions of New Year’s resolutions (ugh). This year, I was determined that January would be different. When we got back from our Christmas trip, I began scheduling regular lunches, dinner parties, happy hours, and other events that would keep us feeling connected to people we care about.
- Get proper winter clothes, even if they’re not fashionable. Last winter, I bought a knee-length down parka with a fur hood. It cost a small fortune and I feel like the Abominable Snow Monster wearing it, but it was well worth it. You are guaranteed misery if you wear cute, slimming coats that aren’t adequately warm. This season, it was time to invest in a great pair of snow boots. I also purchased a base layer last year, an absolute necessity for below-zero days.
In short, hygge is a way of making peace with winter and taking advantage of the atmosphere it creates, rather than wishing it away. If I can do two or three things every day that make me think, “I wouldn’t really want to do this in the summer,” then I’m embracing the season instead of fighting it. I’ll have to reflect further once the winter’s over, but right now I feel like cultivating hygge has helped me improve my mood and be more content with Michigan’s cold, dark days.