I’ve never lived in a centrally heated house. Winter has always meant cold for me. I’ve been through a fair few winters with single glazing as well, with condensation in the morning, pools on the windowsill, and sometimes ice. Go back a generation or two and this would have been normal. Either there are fires, or it gets very cold. Fires mean constant maintenance and the lugging and cutting of wood. This is the first winter in a decade when I’ve not borne the brunt of that work, and it feels like absolute luxury.
Other people talk about how you should put on a jumper on colder days rather than turn up the heating. It’s greener. Winter for me doesn’t only mean jumpers (plural today) but also vests and thermal long-johns. The idea that anyone could be warm enough to float round in a t-shirt seems weirdly alien to me, but I hear people do. For folk in colder climes, this need for thermals is normal. I remind myself that there are many people who have lived their entire lives in freezing conditions, and made their houses out of ice. I have no idea how anyone survives that, mentally or physically, but apparently they do.
I find the cold exhausting. But I look at the cottage I’m in. It has porches and other modern additions. If any of the insulating layers is fifty years old, I’d be surprised. When the place was first built, it had a front door that opened from living room to road – normal for a labourer’s cottage round here. Single glazed. There was no loft insulation back then. There are stories in my family about boys sleeping in attic rooms (nothing unusual there) and obliged to put their coats on the bed in winter. I can’t begin to imagine how cold it must have been. I think about people going out to fetch water from wells when everything was frozen. My Gran talked of when she first had hot running water in the house. Yesterday a local woman described how as a child she, her parents and a sibling had lived in two rooms with an outside toilet. How cold must that have been when there was snow on the ground?
Life for our ancestors in winter must have been entirely focused on survival. The bringing in of fuel for the fire, the sourcing of it, the making of food, the drying of clothes and shoes, the warming of chilled bodies. They must have been a lot tougher than we are, mentally and physically.
In this weather, heat to me seems like the most amazing luxury. Hot food and warm drinks become essential. Summer seems like a distant dream. And yet there are schools of thought in Druidry and other pagan traditions that winter is the time of sleep, of dark restfulness and quiet. If you live in a milder place, perhaps this is so. If you have central heating then sure, winter means snuggling up inside and looking through the double glazing at the frost. Our ancestors relied on fire for heat, and fire needs constant feeding. Our ancestors had to forage outside, not in supermarkets. The sleep of winter is only possible if you are insulated from the climate by modern technology, maintaining toasty temperatures that aren’t green or sustainable.
But we get hungry for heat, as we do for any other essential thing in brief supply. The cold can, and does, kill people. The desire to be comfortable is a very human one. But without the knowledge of discomfort, we take those mod-cons for granted. At this time of year, I relish heat, and the days of sunlight, as rich, luxurious blessings, and I reconcile myself to the cold as best I can, armed with extra socks. And I do not, ever, find winter to be a sleepy time of rest and retreat.