The lovely sleep of winter. Or not.

And so, with the autumn equinox behind us and the nights growing longer we begin the lovely, restful descent into peace and darkness where we will dream up future plans ready to send forth our shoots again next spring.

If you’ve read anything on Paganism or Druidry, the odds are you’ve run into that sentiment. Evidently it works for some people – for the autumn and winter fans this is a happy time of year. If you have a warm, comfortable dwelling, are insulated from the excesses of weather, confident you can pay your heating bills no matter what, and in a state of good mental and physical health, winter is no bother at all.

My seasonally affected friends are watching the loss of light with the grief that inevitably brings. There are so many people more vulnerable to depression in the winter months, due to shortages of sun-induced serotonin in the brain.

For anyone in poverty, winter is a nightmare, and there are a lot of people in poverty just now. Not having enough food is tougher in the cold, and the issues of heating bills are many. Cold properties invite damp, mould and sickness. There’s a social impact – you won’t invite anyone else into your cold, damp, mouldy home if you can help it.

My seasonal challenges are akin to the ones my female ancestors have probably always faced. I do not have a tumble drier, I depend on sun and wind to dry my clothes. Wet winters make laundry slow and difficult, again with the lingering damp invitation to moulder. I don’t have a car, and walking everywhere can be an exercise in getting very cold, or wet through. At least this year I have a decent waterproof coat, but that hasn’t always been the case. I know people who jog, go out there and get soaked to the skin as part of their sport, but that only works when there’s a hot shower and a washing machine to come home to – not everyone has those, none of our ancient ancestors did. For most of human history, the threat of being cold and wet has been considerable.

The story of winter as a gentle, restful sleep time is a story of modern western privilege, only available if you have money and resources to block out the cold. If you’ve got to keep a fire burning for the next four months and have to source your wood (again, our ancestors mostly had to sort this for themselves) winter means more work, not less. Food supplies depend on stores – grain, apples, whatever else you dried. Mice become a real danger in such a context. If the harvest was poor, then you’d head for the winter knowing there was every chance you’d starve if spring was late. Elderly and fragile individuals would know they were especially likely to die. Our winters are not like that at the moment.

For me, our attitude to approaching winter is one of the most overtly modern aspects of contemporary Paganism. It is far from what you get when living marginally. For our ancestors, winter was a tough time, demanding, difficult, and threatening. The cold could kill you. Hunger could kill you. Hungry predators might try and kill you. The threats and challenges of winter have only been mitigated in the last hundred years or so, and even then – only for those who have the money. There will be plenty of people in our affluent societies who will die if this winter is a cold one – the elderly are often victims. There will be people going cold and hungry who cannot afford to heat their homes or cook their food.

The veneer of civilisation is thin. If the power goes off or there isn’t fuel for cars, most of us will be rapidly heading towards more ancestral-style experiences of the dark half of the year.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

5 responses to “The lovely sleep of winter. Or not.

  • Jenny

    I love winter because I can indulge my love of snuggling into my nest, but that’s because I’m lucky enough to have a warm, comfortable one. I hadn’t really considered what the books so blithely say about winter and as a pagan with a deep and profound interest in history, archaeology and our ancestors, I should have and am somewhat embarrassed that I hadn’t. Thanks once again, Nimue, for jolting me out of my modern, western complacency and giving me plenty to think about.

  • stoneofdestiny

    The flip side, of course, is that for most of our ancestors, the summer months were times of unending backbreaking labor. No air conditioning, no sun-block, and hardly an ice cold beverage to be found. Life was just hard, across the board, season for season, and yet the many of the traditions that have been passed down to us are ones of celebration. This tells me that they were able to accept the challenges and find the joys available in every season – I expect they had little time or tolerance for crying about their sorry lives. No one complains so loudly about going without as those who have plenty.

    • Nimue Brown

      That is a fair point. Although that said I think climate and temperature have considerable impact on how the ceaseless labour affects you. Our pre-industrial ancestors had (I think) more direct benefit from the immediate fruits of their efforts, and more communal, community based working situations, and alcohol as the primary beverage… But yes, I read the stories of 18 hour working days, and I struggle to imagine how anyone found the stamina, mental and physical, to sustain that. It may be that the urge to celebrate is made stronger by the pressing and unending grind.

  • joannavanderhoeven

    Good words. Rather than sleeping, I see winter as the time for dreaming, coming up with new ideas for implementation next spring, guarding them close against the winter’s chill. I love the challenges of winter, but then again that may be as a result of living in the present as opposed to hundred of years ago. I find winters easy in this country, but that is all relative – growing up in Quebec, it’s not terribly cold here, but it is unbelievably damp. Different things to deal with on different levels. Autumn is, for me, a time of rest, after a usually crazy summer of activity – things do slow down. but agriculturally, autumn is the busiest time, and tractors abound on all the roads where I live. In my own garden, the hedges need cutting, the flowers deadheaded or cleaned out, things put to bed – but again, this is a luxury garden rather than a fully self-sufficient garden that my life depends on. The songs of the ancestors sing loudly, those ancestors of blood, of place and of tradition, and your words do echo with the words that they sing in the twilight hours… 🙂

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