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Brightening Up January

The month after Christmas and New Year's Eve can be a frigid letdown. Here are a few thoughts on how to add warmth and cheer.
January winter snow

January can be a dark and depressing month. As we move our Christmas trees to the curb and pack up glistening ornaments, the sparkle and enchantment of December slowly disappears before us. The darkness and cold are no longer transformed by favorite nostalgic holiday tunes or foods. Everything feels a bit more bone-chilling, a bit less cheery. A lot of folks struggle with seasonal depression this time of year: we’re not getting the vitamin D and fresh air we so often need. And with the sudden December-to-January transformation of our social schedules—from frenzied to sparse—loneliness can seep into our lives like an icy draft.

How to combat these things, and keep the joy in our Januarys? As the eastern U.S. has been hit by a “bomb cyclone,” with threats of a polar vortex to come, the question is on more than a few people’s minds. Living in an old house prone to frozen pipes and chilly drafts has made it even more of a challenge for our family of late. It’s prompted me to recall the ways our childhood winters remained cozy and warm, despite Idaho’s sub-zero wintry temperatures.

So here are some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned from friends and family to brighten those dark January days.

Winter foods

Lately, we’ve been enjoying the seeping cold of a 19th-century farmhouse, with all its antique glass windows and non-insulated walls. Let’s just say it’s not the ideal atmosphere for frozen or chilled dishes, like smoothies or ice cream. Thankfully, I’ve been blessed with a mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law who all love to cook—and who know how to cook well in the wintertime. They taught me how to make cinnamon rolls, homemade bread, oatmeal scones, biscuits, homemade mac and cheese, beef stew, and a myriad of chowders and soups. Many of those foods fill our kitchen—and our stomachs—on a weekly basis. We make waffles or crepes on the weekend, oatmeal or omelets on the weekdays. I’ll put a roast in the oven sometime in the afternoon (this is a favorite recipe), then roast or mash potatoes around dinnertime. We love making chili, avgolemono, chicken stew with potatoes, carrots, kale, and rosemary—or sweet potato black bean burrito bowls for a hearty vegetarian meal.

Winter is also a fun time to experiment with new dishes and cuisines. We’ve learned to make gnocchi, challah bread, and bulgogi. I’m hoping to work on some French dishes this winter, and to master cooking with venison.

Beyond weekend coffee with Bailey’s or a hot toddy, there’s a plethora of fun, nonalcoholic, warming drinks worth enjoying at wintertime. I like trying to recreate favorite lattes and coffee shop drinks on weekends. A “London Fog latte” requires earl grey tea, a generous dollop of honey, a splash of vanilla, and some milk. You can make homemade chai concentrate by simmering black tea bags with cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and star anise, then adding sugar or honey and milk. When nasty colds hit our house, we make homemade ginger tea with tons of freshly grated ginger and a slice of lemon, or honey thyme tea (just simmer thyme with water on the stovetop, then add honey).

Reading and watching

The Christmas season is bright and homey for a myriad of reasons—but nostalgia certainly helps spread happiness throughout December. We listen to songs we’ve heard since childhood, watch beloved films, and read our favorite books. But there’s no reason we have to cut ourselves off from that warm remembrance of the past after the holidays end. Often, January is an ideal time to indulge in favorite books and movies, to enjoy the treasures of the past. I love to reread old favorites by Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Charles Dickens, J.R.R. Tolkien, and John Steinbeck. We re-watch our favorite TV shows, like Agatha Christie’s “Hercules Poirot” murder mysteries and Jane Austen adaptations.

Just as January is a fun time to discover new recipes, it’s also afforded us opportunities to discover new film genres: one goal of mine for this month (and probably next) is to watch some classic Oscar winners, and catch up on famed movies I’ve never seen due to busyness or ignorance.

And although January is a bit early, I love to start garden planning in February. We re-read old garden manuals or pick up new ones, and plot out our hopes and plans for the summer. Spring fever has usually hit by this time, and we can begin with tomatoes and peppers in the house about midway through the month. Seeing little green seedlings sprout below the kitchen window brings a little extra cheer to the dark winter days.

A warm home

Many have talked or written about hygge: the Danish word defined as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” People associate hygge with mulled wine, warm blankets, hot stew, and brisk snowy walks—as well as with a more abstract conception of personal joy and hospitality, warmth and openness. The word and its meaning have grown in popularity here in the States, as many have realized the role such cozy rituals can play in cheering long winters.

Atlantic reporter Kari Leibowitz spent a year in the Norwegian town of Tromsø, where the sun doesn’t rise between November and January. Despite the bleakness, she learned that the people of Tromsø have lower rates of seasonal depression than those in less dark and less cold climes. How is that possible? She traveled there to find out—and quickly realized that her assumptions surrounding winter were entirely incongruent with what she saw:

[I]n New Jersey, where I grew up, almost no one looked forward to winter, myself included (I even chose to attend college in Atlanta to escape the cold). In my experience, people simply got through the wintertime darkness on the way to a brighter, happier season. But in Tromsø, the Polar Night seemed to hold its own unique opportunities for mental and emotional flourishing. …

I found myself the happy victim of mindset contagion after Fern told me she refused to call the Polar Night the mørketid, or “dark time,” preferring instead to use its alternative name, the “Blue Time” to emphasize all the color present during this period. … After hearing this, I couldn’t help but pay more attention to the soft blue haze that settled over everything, and I consciously worked to think of this light as cozy rather than dark. And rather than greeting each other with complaints about the cold and snow, a common shared grumble in the U.S., my Norwegian friends would walk or ski to our meet-ups, arriving alert and refreshed from being outdoors, inspiring me to bundle up and spend some time outside on even the coldest days.

Much of this same positivity and coziness filled my childhood winters, winters that otherwise might have felt cold and dreary. We did our homework next to the fireplace in the evenings, and bundled up to play in the snow on weekends (and then enjoyed cups of hot cocoa when we came inside). We made wintry desserts like gingerbread and nutmeg-sprinkled sugar cookies. My grandmother mastered the art of hygge: the steaming cider and soups and pies that filled our holiday season, the soft hum of a football game in the living room, created a texture that enveloped our spirits with warmth. There were pictures of my father and his siblings proudly lining her walls, rose-embellished china on her counters and in her cabinets. Her bedrooms abounded with pillows and stuffed animals, beckoning to grandchildren with their comfort.

Home can be a haven in January. It requires very little: a blanket, a candle, a warm cup of tea, a well-worn favorite book. But these little touches of comfort can help banish the emotional and physical cold we can otherwise feel throughout the winter.

Ritual and Hospitality

I recently talked to a friend whose family always held a “post-Christmas” party growing up. They often (like most of us) felt saddened after Christmas was over. So her parents counteracted that by having friends over during the week after Christmas.

Though my friend’s family did this in December, this sort of tradition seems especially helpful during January. After New Year’s Eve, our lives settle back into normal rhythms—often with a little less color or excitement. February has Valentine’s Day’s romance and flowers, as well as Super Bowl festivities for football fans; March has St. Patrick’s Day’s brightness and sometimes Easter’s beauty. But January is relatively empty. Perhaps that emptiness provides the perfect opportunity to plan and foster exciting new traditions, rituals, and gatherings for the new year.

A group of friends has started planning early-morning diner breakfasts once every few weeks, as an opportunity to connect and laugh over coffee before everyone heads out for their morning commutes. It’s a simple tradition that’s helped brighten our weekday routines. We’re also trying to make board game nights a regular thing, if not weekly then bi-weekly.

Last fall, a friend of mine also started a bi-weekly book club. Our evening conversations over cookies and tea have become an incredible blessing, an opportunity for encouragement and intellectual stimulation. We take turns picking out books, and put together a Facebook group to help prompt discussion and connection throughout the in-between weeks.

There are also familial, personal traditions we’re working on cultivating this January. As the mom of a toddler, I’m trying to improvise ways to get out and have fun when the temperatures are too cold to spend extensive amounts of time outside or at the park. We’ve started a weekly library date (or two), and take turns visiting friends’ houses for playdates. My daughter got a little tent for Christmas, and so we’ve moved our regular reading time into the cozy confines of her tiny den. In Sally and Sarah Clarkson’s lovely book The Lifegiving Home, they recommend lighting candles at the dinner table, which makes even a simple dinner of eggs and toast feel fun and special. Sally Clarkson also shares her ritual of Sunday afternoon tea and magazine reading with her daughters, and of board game playing and reading books aloud around the fireplace on weekday evenings.

None of these rituals are elaborate or expensive. They’re simple pleasures that help create cadence and brightness: sparks of life amidst dull routine. My tea drawer isn’t full of fancy brands, we don’t own fine china or linen tablecloths, and most of our throw pillows and stuffed animals have been well-loved and cuddled. But despite the age and quality of our possessions, each item has helped make life a bit sweeter—and has helped turn the “dark time,” as Leibowitz puts it, into a “blue time”: full of gorgeous shades and textures, cozy in its quietness.

We still have much to learn about braving winter’s darkness and cold. But I’m hoping that, if we take our cod liver oil regularly and keep the soup simmering, we’ll make it through this polar vortex with our spirits high. Keep the candles burning, friends.

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National ReviewThe Federalist, and the Washington Times, among others.



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