In Praise of Cold Weather

30/12/2021

I love cold weather, and I hate the heat. I get depressed when I sweat under a hot sun, and I’m happy when it rains. I feel safe on snowy nights, and thunder makes me grin in anticipation of a good storm.

 

I am not the only winter lover. The internet is filled with essays praising cold weather, like this listicle on Bustle that includes the following points: it’s good for cuddling, winter fashion is comfortable, sweat is horrendous, and you can add layers of clothes but you can’t peel off your skin if you’re too hot. Such things are familiar to anyone who has found themselves smiling at the first days of autumn.

 

Yet, popular enthusiasm for tropical – and if possible, endless – summer can make me feel alone under my warm blanket. The Pew Research centre found that two thirds of Americans prefer hot weather to cold weather and would rather live in a hot place. They should heed the words of another American, Laura Kiniry, who wrote in Smithsonian Magazine about what her countrymen could get from cold countries. “Friluftsliv is the Norwegian concept of ‘outdoor living,’ or embracing the natural outdoors whatever the weather,” she wrote, explaining the Nordic feeling of balance, and how their long, dark, freezing winters do not prevent their countries from being consistently rated as the most livable and happy nations on Earth. Kiniry also introduced the concept of hygge: “It’s that feeling of coziness you might get when you’re reading a good book by the fire.” Truth is, life in Scandinavia is often overrated (three words: worst food ever), but I still think the best summer of my life was when I drove a van around the Gulf of Bothnia, slept on a mattress in the back, and enjoyed the cool Nordic air every day instead of getting broiled alive on some hot beach.

Two thirds of Americans prefer hot weather to cold weather and would rather live in a hot place.

Summer is the crudest season. It’s hot and sweaty and sticky. Tanned skin is flaunted as the ultimate luxury, and people lie in the sun and do nothing while wearing nothing, napping their way to skin cancer. In contrast to this orgy of bad taste, cold weather encourages contemplation and introspection, and even creativity. Reminiscing on her own time in cold weather, Katherine May, author of Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen, wrote in The Guardian that “everything about me changes in winter – and I let it happen. Winter is a time to enjoy the pleasures of solitude, to dream and contemplate. It opens up a space in which I can mass my energies, to restore and repair […] In winter, I can spend hours in silent pursuit of a half-understood concept, or a detail of history. Winter has patience.” Admit it, you recognize yourself in this, and if you don’t, I am sad for you, even if you’re lying in the sun as you read me. Or, actually, especially if you’re lying in the sun as you read me.

Winter, by Alphonse Mucha

Just consider the famous “year without a summer”: in 1816, the Northern hemisphere experienced an unusually dark, cloudy, foggy, and rainy summer (one popular theory is that it was caused by the fallout of volcanic eruptions in Southeast Asia, although this is controversial). Four famous English writers, Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley (her husband), John William Polidori, and Lord Byron, spent this summer in villas by the storm-lashed shores of Lake Geneva. Kept indoors by the driving rain, they amused themselves by exchanging macabre tales inspired by the gloom. This gave birth to famous works of literature like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” and Byron’s poem “Darkness.”

Villa Diodati, where Lord Byron stayed during the summer of 1816, by Edward Finden

Imagine them in their villa, teacup in one hand and pen in another, scribbling as the rain patters against the windows – don’t you envy them? I know how writing can sometimes feel like hard work, but there’s nothing better than writing while it’s cold outside. Suddenly, what is basically my job becomes a pleasure again, bringing me back to childhood attempts at writing a novel about space travelers in a school notebook, while lying in pajamas near a gas heater in a two centuries-old house in Normandy during a winter that seemed to last half a year. No doubt I wrote whilst sweating in the summer months too, but my favorite, and most vivid memory of writing is during this time, because I felt like a cub in his cavern. Everything feels nicer when done while sheltering from the snow. As an adult, I enjoy the silence snow brings to a busy city, my boots making the white carpet gently purr with each footfall.

Then there’s rain. That same rain that ruins so many beach holidays. But again, rain-bashing is a modern invention that I could live without. The rain used to be sacred. Songs propitiating the heavens for rain over parched land are as old as civilization. Rain-worship is found worldwide. Without rain, there is thirst and hunger. Rain is life, a burning sun is death. We ended up despising what we are, since life first crawled from the seas and more than half the human body is made of water.

Rain is life, a burning sun is death.

In Lithuania, you can see traces of this rain-worship. Lithuanians were the last Europeans to be forced away from paganism: their monarch did not adopt Christianity until the 14th century, and their pagan rituals survived much longer. Today, Lithuanians are the last custodians of the original European cults, and their main deity is Perkunas, God of Thunder. Spring starts with “Perkunas Day,” which is the day when the first crash of thunder is heard. If Perkunas is not heard at all during spring, the ancient Balts expected a miserable year of starvation.

 

I believe that there once was a unity in the spirituality of humankind. Taoist traditions are not far removed from those of the first Indo-Europeans. My personal path between North and South (the essence of being Belgian: a Latin-speaker in a Nordic environment) then between East and West (I once wrote that I see Belgium, Lithuania, and Taiwan as three provinces of the same country) led me to find bridges between all of them. The Chinese I Ching, an ancient book recording an even older oral tradition, is ripe with celebrations of the rain that the Ancient Balts would have found familiar. The first hexagram, Heaven, says “how vast and wondrous the heaven of origins! The ten thousand things all begin from it. It governs the sky, the movement of clouds, the coming of rain.” Mix the trigrams of Water and Heaven, you will get the hexagram of Anticipation: “Clouds rising into the sky before rain, that is anticipation. Using it, the noble-minded find stillness and joy in simply eating and drinking.” Unite the trigrams of Wind and Heaven to get Delicate Nurturing: “if there’s rain, there’s a dwelling-place.” And it goes on and on, as the I Ching constantly celebrates the proper harmony between seasons, with trigrams for thunder and wind – but none for the sun. Hexagram 40 says “when heaven and earth come unbound, thunder and rain break loose. When thunder and rain break loose, the hundred fruits and wildflowers and trees all burst into life.” No better words of gratitude have ever been written from humanity to the rain.

No surprises, then, that research by the US National Science Foundation suggests that lack of rainfall helped precipitate the fall of several Chinese dynasties: “A lack of rainfall could have contributed to social upheaval and the fall of dynasties,” it found, whereas “ample monsoons may have contributed to the expansion of rice cultivation.” Rain certainly has a soothing effect. The negative ions it produces in the air, when inhaled, increases our bodies’ production of the hormone serotonin, which relieves stress and boosts our energy levels. The rhythmic pitter-patter of the rain is also therapeutic. Perhaps this is why so many beautiful songs were inspired by storms, and they are no less mesmerizing than their sunny counterparts. Take “Riders on the Storm” by The Doors, with the rainy sound effects that run through the entire track, and the notes of the Fender Rhodes electric piano that mimic falling drops of water. Or The Who’s “Love, Reigns Oer Me” – I will never forget listening to this song as I drove through Brussels one stormy night with my windows down, the wind riffling through my hair, the air electric.

 

As I finish writing this piece, a heavy rain is starting to fall and a sudden gust of wind blows through the room. I know what comes next: warm clothes, warm drinks, and warm hugs – there is no better warmth than the one we create ourselves on a cold day. Please accept this blessing from a cold weather lover: for the new year, I can’t wish you anything better than a long chilly night followed by many a day of lovely snow or rain.

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