Seeking Warmth

The weather and temperature can have a strong effect on our moods and behavior. With the approach of winter, how do our habits and patterns change to adapt to the cooler chill?

As the days close in on their shortest and the cold descends in the Northern Hemisphere, people begin to gravitate towards the warm and comfortable, away from the stark and chilly. In a certain way, such a movement often occurs en masse, as if the shared thought of lit fires and warm meals threads through and links the minds of strangers and friends on the street alike. Warmth is not just a feeling that we crave with our skin; we feel it with all of our senses. Our eyes dart towards warm glows illuminating the cold backdrop before us, while our mouths salivate at the thought of near-scalding spoonfuls of oven-cooked meals smothered in gravies and sauces. Our noses twitch at the scent of hot coffee or spiced breads, and our fingers curl into the plush, knit depths of mittens and gloves. The sound of a fire crackling or the tinkling laughter floating over from a room full of conversations is like music to the ears, guaranteeing company and a good time. Even our hearts seek the intimate, familiar, and close proximity of family and friends, which we soak in like a balm that protects and heals us from the cruelest of winter’s elements outside.

The most extreme form of self-preservation in the unfriendly cold in hibernation, a scheduled, programmed response to stay put and hide away in some animals (bears, groundhogs) and some insects (think honeybees). Other creatures, like birds, travel to warmer and more hospitable habitats, where foodstuffs and liquid water are not in short supply. Most humans fall somewhere in between: unable to simply nap the weeks away—although to be clear, hibernation is not a mode of sleep—or travel to sunnier climes for the next three months, we employ other methods to stay warm and nourished. Many habits we adopt during the winter season follow a pattern and schedule like hibernation or migration. Here, we reflect on a few.

Sunlight through a window
A bed illuminated by sunlight
Sunlight on a door


Perhaps the sounds that wakes you up comes from the heater: a hiss of scalding steam, the click of a radiator, the gurgle and muffled thump or clang of a water heater, the high-pitched whistle of an oil heater. Your eyes and nose peek out from the cocoon of sheets and blankets that you’ve swaddled around yourself, interrogating the sometimes dry, sometimes stuffy indoor air. More often than not, you detect several degrees of difference between the temperature of your bed and the temperature of the air immediately surrounding it, prompting you to duck your head back under your covers, or your fingers to grasp the soft folds of your blankets in a never-let-me-go grip, as if you could reach and grab the warmth and take it with you when you leave your bed.

However, the lightening day outside your curtains and blinds beckon, so up you go. Whereas summertime allowed for the slap of bare feet on hardwood floors, you’ve already been warned once before this season by the jarring experience of trying that during the cooler months. Instead, your feet meet the woven loops of your bedside rug, or jam themselves into plush slippers, even during the first few incoherent minutes of wakefulness.


Nurturing that little flame of warmth in the core of your body is essential to prevent it from being extinguished by the dark shadows and frigid winds, which would inevitably result in a permanent, unshakeable chill for the rest of the say ahead of you. For some, tending to that fire involves a rigorous morning exercise regimen. The results of such energetic movement, if done outside by the most ambitious and committed, results in little plumes of hot air that coalesce from noses and mouths. Cheeks flush rosy and eyes glitter, like we have obtained a pocket-sized, fire-breathing dragon with a slight temper. For others, the fire is kept burning with a hot shower, the water coursing over our backs and down our legs and feet, emitting tendrils of steam that create a thick fog to temporarily trap warm pockets of air around us. Still others fuel the flames with the help of food and drink. Iced coffees are replaced by hot brews, cradled in mugs or paper sleeves and plastic lids. Summer fruit and cold cereal are put aside in favor of creamy bowls of oatmeal, or crispy toast smothered in blankets of jam or honey or peanut butter, or hearty forkfuls of scrambled eggs and satisfyingly greasy sausage.


Our first contact with the outdoors usually errs to the cautious side during the cooler months. Many of us do not throw open windows with abandon to let in the outdoors and allow the wind to course past our limbs. Instead, arms and legs are wrapped in long-sleeved sweaters and full-length pants or ground-grazing skirts, forming delicate cloth shells that act as our most immediate line of defense. And if you live in the snow, there’s more to pile on: thick, fluffy jackets, knots of scarves, the perch of a beanie or a hat. All of these articles are firmly patted into place, then shoulders are squared with resolve, before the door is cracked open to discover what lies in wait outdoors.


Whether we are at work or school, our cold weather habits cling to us, creating a particular environment that reminds us of the chill outside. Heaters are cranked on (although whether the thermostat displays a balmy 25C/77F or a shiver-inducing 16C/61F likely depends on the peculiarities of the building’s construction or your boss’ inclinations). Chair backs and hooks are smothered and hidden away beneath layers of heavy coats and other garments we shed to facilitate ease of movement. The slap of sandals and thin sneakers rushing by are now rare, and if present, are masked by the clop and thump of boots and heels and clogs.


When you look outside, the sun has already retreated and the depths of the night are upon you. Commuters brace their shoulders against windy gusts, collars turned up and hats pulled down low over their eyes. Street lamps dully illuminate the passerby in their outfits of muted grays, blues, browns, and blacks, sending their long shadows reaching out across the sidewalk. You don’t stay outside for long. Whereas the summer may have sent you on leisurely strolls back home, the winter sends you scuttling for the shelter of a bus stop or train station or your own car, where you will receive a temporary but blessed respite from the wind tugging insistently at your hair, your bags, and your hems.


Arriving home and closing the door behind you may feel a bit like you’ve sealed away the cold for the night and successfully conquered the elements. That little fire inside of you, now consisting of barely-smoldering embers, is revived by slipping into flannel pajamas, or hovering over the stove as dinner sizzles or bubbles away, or snuggling into a hug by a gratifyingly heat-emitting being within arms’ reach. The glow of the kitchen lights looks rosy and welcome, and the chatter, whether between two or among twenty, reminds us of the company we are fortunate to know and have.


Winter nights bring on cravings for the most hearty and satisfying of meals. Light, fragrant cooking oils are supplemented with dollops of butter, which melt into beautiful golden pools. Steaming soups are full of barley or rice or beans, and, if you are so inclined, morsels of delectable meat. The balance of veggies tips away from the leafy variety and towards the substantial array of squashes and root vegetables. Warm, spicy sauces might coat your bowl, or thick gravies or strings of cheese might cling to the back of your spoon, long after your stomach has filled and extended in a happy state of satiation. That is not to say, of course, that there isn’t a secret compartment in your digestive system that would be receptive to a serving of something decadent and sweet. You might fill that hole with a gooey chocolatey cake, the fragrant crumb of warmly-spiced gingerbread, or the flaky crust and sticky sweetness of homemade pie. Somehow, they taste even better when they were made a few days ago and have lingered in the fridge, because you know that they wait for you for tonight’s dessert, and tomorrow’s, and maybe the day after that, too. The smells of vanilla, or cinnamon, or nutmeg re-enforce our newly minted memories of shared meals with loved ones, while recalling nostalgic memories of our childhood. And when we climb into bed, at ten, or twelve, or two, even the icy toes of a selfish bed partner cannot displace the sigh of contentment and warmth that comes from our hearts.


Unfortunately, not all of the members of our communities can experience this warmth every night. If you can spare a coat, a scarf, or even a pair of mittens, look for your community’s collection and donation bins and give someone the gift of warmth.

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