Lessons from around the world on how celebrating Winter Solstice and embracing coziness this Season can dispel the winter blues
Positive winter associations for me involve curling up indoors to watch a movie or read a book with a hot cup of tea or cocoa, sitting under a fuzzy blanket. On the negative side, winter can make me feel trapped indoors, demoralized by grey and gloomy skies, killing time until warmer weather returns. It's hard enough to navigate the world outside your front door when you live with a chronic illness, without having to contend with snow, rain, wind, and cold. Fatigue, pain, mobility issues, and other symptoms present difficult enough hurdles, and it feels unfair to have to deal with the additional burdens of winter (especially in a pandemic). I'm not alone in experiencing the winter blues.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a clinical diagnosis of depressed mood caused by longer hours of darkness. While the exact cause isn't known, it may be linked to our sleep/wake cycle, regulated by the sleep hormone melatonin. Usually, melatonin levels will fall when you are exposed to bright morning light. However, if your melatonin levels don't fall normally on winter mornings because of the extended darkness and weak daylight, then a cascade of knock-on effects, from lethargy, appetite and low mood might be triggered. (1)
Coziness as an act of self-care: Lessons from Scandinavia on dispelling winter blues
What can we do to dispel the seasonal blues? To answer this question, we can look to the approach Scandinavians take and how they manage to be ranked as some of the happiest people in the world, despite their long, dark winter season. Psychologist Kari Leibowitz moved to a town in the far north of Norway to try to understand why the residents there experience incredibly low rates of seasonal affective disorder, despite only receiving a few hours of indirect daylight from November to February. (2) Her research revealed that it was all about having the right winter mindset and viewing the coldest season as an opportunity for fulfillment, rather than a restrictive and unpleasant thing to be endured.
If you view the winter as a time to dive into your 'to-read' list, watch mysteries on TV, pursue hobbies at home (like cooking, knitting, making candles, or drawing), brighten up your living space, or play games with your family, then you are less likely to be negatively affected by the season. Leibowitz also found that enjoying the winter weather is an important component of the positive wintertime mindset. Norwegians look forward to playing in the snow and appreciating the beauty of the season. This is trickier for people living with chronic illness, but it is possible with certain modifications. Standing on the doorstep or sitting by an open window for a few moments and breathing in the refreshing air can give you that invigorating feeling. Taking drives or short walks, weather permitting, to look at Christmas lights or snowfall, is another option.
Scandinavians have a unique winter self-care approach called koselig in Norway and hygge in Denmark. It loosely translates to 'cozy' in English, but it means so much more than simply snuggling under thick blankets on the couch. Think of it as a warm and fuzzy feeling of contentment, mindfully savoring moments experienced when you create a warm and peaceful environment during wintertime. While it does include warm sweaters, thick socks, soft blankets, hot drinks, fires, and lit candles, hygge is about intentionally enjoying the feeling of togetherness, or turning inwards, best enjoyed when the weather outside is frightful. This is the time to rest and reflect, to integrate what you learned in the past year into your outlook and actions, to dream. When spring comes, you will be ready for new beginnings.
If it helps you to put things down in words, whether in color-coded to-do lists, journal entries, blog articles, or Instagram captions, this is the time of year to write about what you most want or need for personal growth.
The skill of savoring simple pleasures, of taking in the good moments mindfully, explains psychologist Rick Hanson, can literally re-wire your brain for greater well-being. For people living with chronic illness, the brain region responsible for triggering fear, stress, and anxiety, called the amygdala, is on a hair-trigger, firing off danger alerts at the slightest provocation. Since we know that stress is linked to flare-ups, learning relaxation and stress-management strategies are important tools for patients so they can improve their quality of life. Learning to consciously appreciate and be present for enjoyable experiences, like taking a sip of a great cup of coffee, or breathing in fresh, crisp winter air, or lighting a beautiful scented candle, soothes the amygdala, making it less reactive to stress in the long term. So next time you snuggle under blankets or drink a hot cup of tea while diving into a movie or a book, deliberately pause to absorb the sense of coziness. Perhaps you save your coziest blanket for the winter months or light your favorite chai-scented candle only at this time of the year to give you something to look forward to. In this way, hygge is the perfect self-care winter strategy for people with chronic illness. Ultimately, this isn't about denying the frustrations of winter, but instead choosing to refocus your attention away from the difficulties and toward the enjoyable possibilities. Winter solstice, the symbol that even in the longest darkness, the light always returns, is another perfect way to adopt a positive wintertime mindset.
Why do people celebrate Winter Solstice?
During Winter Solstice, we experience the shortest day, and the longest night, of the year. On this day, usually December 21st or 22nd, the sun travels on its shortest path through the sky. This occurs because the Earth rotates on a tilted axis, and winter solstice marks the time when the Northern hemisphere is tilted furthest away from the sun.
No matter how far we advance technologically, humans remain influenced by the natural cycles of the seasons. Each season is associated with certain symbols, emotions, and meanings, often mirroring the natural cycle — returning sunlight heralds new life in spring and growth in summer, while diminishing light signifies harvest in autumn and dormancy or death in winter. Similar patterns are represented in warmer regions closer to the equator, where people divide their year into the dry season and the wet season.
Yet, the Winter Solstice was, and is, celebrated, because after the longest night of the year, the light begins to return, and each day becomes incrementally longer. Driving or walking past houses decked out in strands of twinkling lights on a crisp December evening is always uplifting. My favorite tradition is to decorate our Christmas tree with strands of lights and ornaments collected over the years. It is a symbol of hope in the middle of winter, a promise that the light always returns. Evergreen represents a promise that new growth, beginnings, and renewal will return, even when everything appears to be bare and dormant.
In the past, winter was a difficult time for people, and communities needed to rely on each other to get through the cold months when food was scarce. Celebrations that bonded people together, through shared meals and gift-giving, helped to forge these vital relationships, which is why these are common features of many winter festivities. So, if the winter blues start to depress you in the coming weeks, find small ways to celebrate the fact that the Earth is tilting back toward the sun and daylight is beginning to lengthen.
Mid-Winter celebrations around the world
Although you may not explicitly celebrate the Winter Solstice, many modern holiday traditions incorporate symbols from ancient winter solstice celebrations. Ancient Romans celebrated , a week-long festival when houses were decked with bows of laurel and evergreen trees, lamps kept burning to ward off spirits, and friends visited to exchange small gifts, like fruit, cakes, and incense, while in the public sphere, processions and festivals were conducted. The elements of lights, evergreen, and gift-giving have been incorporated into many Christmas traditions.
Light as a symbol of hope is a feature of many worldwide festivities that occur during the late fall/winter holiday season, although the specific religions meanings vary from lighting the menorah during Hanukkah, lighting Advent candles on Sundays leading up to Christmas, to lighting a kinara for Kwanzaa.
In Scandinavia, a 'yule' log is burned in the hearth at Christmas, based on a pagan Winter Solstice tradition during which families burned a specially selected tree on the longest night of the year to encourage the Sun to return once again. (3)
Indigenous First Nations celebrate Winter Solstice in different ways, often as the beginning of a season of rest and replenishment after the activities and business of the warm months of the year. For the Chippewa of Minnesota, it represents the beginning of a season of storytelling, when people can gather together on cold winter's nights for entertainment, but also for education. (4) For the Blackfleet of Montana, it traditionally signified the beginning of community games and dances (although these were later moved to Christmas and New Year’s). (5)
In China, the Winter Solstice holiday is called the Dong zhi Festival, during which the return of the sun marks the strengthening of positive yang energy. People celebrate by gathering with family to share meals and visiting temples to honor their ancestors. Understanding the link between the seasons, sunlight, and mood goes back to ancient times: "The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, a treatise on health and disease that’s estimated to have been written in around 300 B.C.E. in China...suggests that during winter—a time of conservation and storage—one should “retire early and get up with the sunrise. ... Desires and mental activity should be kept quiet and subdued, as if keeping a happy secret.” (6)
This winter, try embracing the art of coziness and find small ways to celebrate the beauty of the season and the fact that the light always returns after the darkness.