It's dark outside so winter inside makes sense. It's cold so you cover up. It's stuffy and sweaty inside your clothes but your fingers and face are freezing. The sky is gray and the trees are leafless, they've given up, and if there's a sun it's very hard to see. The nights are long, they last forever, until you're supposed to get up and then you can't. You don't want to get out of bed or see or talk to anyone. You want to sleep and not wake up. You want to burrow. Things are supposed to get "better" in spring but that isn't what you want. The winter trees have given up so why can't you?
Animals thicken their coats and put on fat. They curl up tight, sometimes alone but sometimes with another or a group. Some sleep throughout the winter; others wake up, sort of, sometimes. Bears, chipmunks, hedgehogs, porcupines, and squirrels all get to hibernate. But also some cold-blooded things like snakes. Some kinds of snakes sleep months in mobs like giant tangled twitchy balls of string. Some insects hibernate, including bees. In some hives, the worker bees die and the only one who wakes again is the queen. Birds fly south. You burrow in caves or under rocks or deep in rooms with books and blankets and you barely move.
You move as slow as sludge.
The word "winter" comes from Old English and Germanic roots related to waeter, or water. In the northern hemisphere it's the season of rain and snow. Officially, it starts on the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year (December 21 or 22), when where you live is tipping away from the sun. It ends on the vernal equinox (March 21 or 22), when the days and nights, the dark and light, are getting back in balance.
By winter the crops have been brought in and with less work to do outside, and awful, awful weather, your northern ancestors stayed inside a lot. They sat by the fire for light and heat. Some people found this cozy but some others suffered from, and so made others suffer, cabin fever. As if they were inside so much, their insides started to fester.
To pass the time they told each other stories.
In the kids' book While the Bear Sleeps (by Caitlin Matthews, illustrated by Judith Christine Wells, 1999), a girl is outside when the first snow starts. She seeks refuge in a cave that turns out to be a bear's den. But the big, hairy bear is nice and tells her she can stay with him in the cave and sleep. "I generally do that when winter comes," he says. "Because it's the time when you look inside yourself and remember important things."
Sometimes you do too much of that.
A line in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale says "A sad tale's best for winter." Sometimes in winter being sad is all you think about.
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, I read on the Mayo Clinic webpage, "is a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons... If you're like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody."
In fall you start to fall apart; in winter you're already fallen. It happens again like it always does which you should know by now but you do not. Or you do know but stupidly you pretend you don't. You try to sleep to get away from being alive and suffering. You try to sleep to undo what your passion turns you to. Your passion comes from somewhere both inside of you and outside where you do not understand, or if you do, or think you do, you fear it as much as you desire it; it is mysterious.
"Passion" is when you are not just alive, not just breathing and eating and crapping and sleeping and not really caring whether you wake up or not. Passion is being alive a lot. You want to wake up, you want to want. You want to move toward and do something. Maybe you know a reason or maybe you don't but nothing stops you. You want and desire and yearn toward a person or people or an idea or something. But passion, the word, derives from the Latin passio, which means to suffer. To want means you will suffer. To want is to know you might but might not have. You'll have but then you will have not, you'll lose. To open the heart means it will break. You do not want to not want. You have to hope you will get through the bad, the worst, and that you will, or someone else will, come out, living, on the other side.
"Don't brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the 'winter blues' or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own," the Mayo Clinic website goes on to say. "Take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year."
It's amazing how unhelpful some websites can be.
One time many years ago, when I was in a state, I told my friends I was going out of town but I was lying. Instead I stayed at home in bed alone. I pulled down the blinds and shut off the phone and turned out the lights and curled up beneath the blankets and sort of slept. It was the closest I could get to not existing. I couldn't imagine waking up. I also didn't want to but I guess sometime I did. That winter I went camping by myself. I climbed up a mountain and walked around. It was snowy and gray and cold but I didn't really feel that until I got lost. Then, when it began to seem like I really might truly not get back, that's when I wanted to. Somehow, though I do not know how, I found a trail then got back to my tent.
I remember the next morning waking up and looking out the tent flap and seeing as if suddenly the normal day looked beautiful.
I knew that I was still alive and suddenly felt grateful.
"The Snow Queen" is Hans Christian Andersen's tale about a boy who falls in love and can't escape. She's beautiful, chilly, white as snow, and when she whooshes by him in a sleigh, she dazzles him. He ties his sled to hers and she pulls him around and he feels great like he has never felt before. Then he starts to freeze.
Hypothermia is caused by getting cold. Your temperature drops, your body slows, your metabolism shifts. You shiver, your breathing and heart rates race. Your mind begins to blur and sometimes even—you cannot help yourself—you tear off your clothes. "Creep inside my bear skin coat," the Snow Queen tells the boy. When he is all wrapped up in her, she kisses him.
"Ugh!" he thinks, "it was colder than ice, it went to his very heart, which was already more than half ice; he felt as if he were dying, but only for a moment, and then it seemed to have done him good."
"Now I mustn't kiss you any more," the Snow Queen says, "or I should kiss you to death."
He wants her to kiss him again but now he's afraid. It's like his body is not his own anymore. She takes him to her palace and he stays with her for what feels like forever. At night he looks up at the dark winter sky. In the day he sleeps at her feet like a beaten dog.
The phone call came on a morning in December. They didn't say how it happened but the roads were icy and we knew he'd had to drive. My friend needed to come home, they said, and he asked me and so I went with him.
He and I went and we stayed with the baby and widow. The widow sat on the couch a lot. The baby needed to be held. One of us sat and held the widow's hand or answered the phone and listened. The other held the baby and cooed or followed behind it when it tried to walk. It walked around falling and looking and saying "Daddy?" Then after a while we'd switch and the other would sit with her and the other would take the baby. Everyone—his family, workmates, friends, his widow—was sad and very shocked.
This was still in the days of Walkmans and mine had only one CD in it when I'd thrown it in my bag, and when the baby or widow would sleep, one of us stayed inside with them and the other could go outside and if it was me I took a walk with the Walkman. Outside it was frozen, the fields were stubbled with brown-white furrows and clods stuck up from the snow. The side of the highway had dirty lumps of ice from the slush the trucks threw off. The air was dry and the world seemed not alive. The only sounds were me, my breath, and walking, and in my ears and head the songs of Schubert's Winterreise.
The words of the song cycle, from poems by Wilhelm Müller, tell the story of a young man who falls in love with a girl in May; later, in winter, she rejects him and he becomes despondent. He tries to get over his despair by going away alone. His only companions on his winter journey include a crow, some dogs, the rain and snow, a river, and finally a poor, old hurdy-gurdy man.
Schubert started getting sick in his twenties with headaches, horrible skin, and hair loss (for a while he wore a wig). He knew these were signs of syphilis and suspected he wouldn't live long. Previously, he had premiered his songs in evening salons at his own place or the homes of friends, where everyone would eat and drink and sing together. But Winterreise happened differently. After Schubert's death, his friend, Josef von Spaun, remembered this:
For a time, Schubert's mood became gloomier and he seemed upset. When I asked him what the matter was, he merely said to me, "Come to Schober's today. I will sing you a cycle of awe-inspiring songs." He then, with a voice full of feeling, sang... Winterreise for us. We were quite dumbfounded by the gloomy mood of these songs.
That evening at the home of poet and librettist Franz von Schober, Schubert presented the first 12 of the 24 songs that eventually made up Winterreise. After that evening at Schober's, though he continued to decline, Schubert kept composing.
Von Spaun also remembered this:
On Nov 11  he had to take to his bed. Although dangerously ill, he felt not pain and complained only of weakness. Now and then he would fall into delirium, during which time he sang continuously. He used his few lucid intervals to revise the second part of Winterreise... On Nov 19, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, he breathed his last.
Schubert sang while dying. The Hasidim dance while mourning. I learned recently from Donna Krolik Hollenberg's excellent biography of Jewish-then-Catholic writer Denise Levertov that after Levertov learned that her father had risen "from his bed shortly before his death to dance the Hasidic dance of praise," Levertov wrote the poem "In Obedience." That's the one that includes the lines "Let my dance / be mourning then..."
Some people actually welcome death, and not because they've given up or are desperate to put themselves out of their misery. They welcome it as a natural phase, transition, or kind of graduation, from an earthly, bodily life toward some other form of living that is better. This might include an afterlife or some mysterious way of being where you'll get to see the ones you have loved who've died. Or one in which you get to be at peace. The people who believe this die in hope.
Midwinter festivals have been part of northern cultures, where the winters are extreme, forever. Many of them—Yule (pagan), Sadeh (Persian), Christmas (Euro-Christian)—have in common a story of the return after darkness of light. In the Christianity I practice, Christmas is preceded by Advent (from Latin adventus; ad "to" + venire "come"), a period in which believers look forward to the arrival of the divine in the form of a baby. Expected and waited and hoped for. Yet when it arrives you can't quite believe but also you cannot imagine not.
The "it" that arrives for Christians at Christmas is Jesus, the baby that is a human-god, whose story ends with the Passion. That is his suffering, which is an end, but not an end, but really a beginning, again, of light in a season of dark.
There's a picture of my wife from before we were married. She's smiling in her winter coat. Her hair is not as gray as it is now. The day is bright. We're walking on a path beside a field. It's in the country and quiet the way it only gets in snow, and she is happy. I am happy too. I took the picture in England where we went the first Christmas we spent together. I took her there to see the people who sort of adopted me when I was a teenager.
It's great over there at Christmas. They eat good food like bite-sized raisin-apple pies and buttery potatoes. At night you sit inside where it's warm and laugh and tell the same stupid tales you've all told a million times but you are happy to hear them again.
You go out to let out the dog. Outside it's very cold and dark but also there is light from the moon and stars. The snow crunches under your feet and your cheeks get cold. The dog runs around and sniffs and when it comes back you go inside to the warmth and the light and your friends. Someone is changing the baby now and someone is making a sandwich and telling again for the millionth time a story. You stand inside the house of your friends and feel and see and everyone is in love and alive and you get to be here, grateful, too, however long, this time, the winter lasts.