Everybody—and every body—knows that the seasons affect moods. Winter darkness and cold make mind and body shiver with foreboding. We hole up to conserve body heat and save food. Sociable, creative fingers get numb and retreat into pockets. Wintry physiology encourages "seasonal affective disorder" (SAD) or seasonal depression. Language warns you to look out for Old Man Winter's frost "bite." He's a predator.
To cope with morbid winter, long before psychiatry, culture developed tools such as fire, furs, food storage, and uplifting symbolism. To manage morale, we reframe wintry death as a prelude to rebirth. The symbolism and rituals of the season coax imagination to compensate for the freeze. A Christmas tree evokes harvest time, with exuberant colored lights symbolizing a bumper crop of fruit and easing worries about starvation. The usual angel on the top idealizes youth, female fertility, and "spirit" or imaginative life, with wings that overcome the downward pull of gravity and the grave.
Ideally, imaginative behavior recuperates what's been frozen up in winter, restoring circulation. In this spirit, holiday gift-giving is therapeutic when it counters the urge to withdraw and hoard vitality. Likewise, as in funeral rituals, feasting defies death and dearth and keeps energy circulating. Meanwhile "Father" Christmas or Santa idealizes nurturing parents. Summoned by prayer-like letters, Santa comes out of the frozen north pole with generous gifts. His elves make toys in his workshop with the same creative pleasure that children find in making up games and stories as they play with their toys. Meanwhile, adults get to identify with kids, since to play Santa they have to imagine the kids' wishes and hopes.
In this light, the season is actually a contest of moods, visions of warmth challenging winter reflexes, as in ancient myths. Wintry moods fortify the self against fear of scarcity and the dark. They caution you to withdraw into self-sufficiency and police food and debt. By contrast, imaginative stimulation stresses sharing, planning for spring, trusting resources and each other. It favors mistletoe and planning spring planting.
Seasons can help make sense of behavior. For example, even though we're still in a deep economic freeze, some political voices are demanding "austerity," which is a wintry reflex. Austerity fears shortages of food and warmth, and therefore polices everybody's intake. It regards sharing gifts and energy as dangerously irresponsible, since running short would mean death. Why plan for spring planting when your mind is on apocalyptic debt?
In this spirit, icy politicians are killing food, medical, and unemployment programs for the poor. They don't mind spending on the military, since they feel under siege by worldwide terrorist enemies, in wars that go on and on like a blizzard. And like Dickens' Scrooge, they approve of the super rich hogging a historic share of the national sugarplums at a time when most Americans' salaries have been frozen for several decades. It's polar winter, they argue: time to hoard calories and money, and to police gifts and food—or the poor will starve us all. The argument matches a death threat with a promise of survival if you stay in your igloo, spare the candles, and eat less tasty blubber.
As in Dickens, the energy to hoard money and power seems to come out of personal relationships, sex included. A chilled imagination numbs desire. The voices of austerity protest that the poor prefer sex to ambition; women choose abortions; sex education and birth control are subversive; gays want marriage; and single mothers want a free ride.
Though critics grumble that the US is "hypersexed," most conspicuous sex is a corporate advertising tool, photoshopped and impersonal. Cosmopolitan magazine illustrates the corporate promise to convert "frigid" winter to the "hot" summer of an "awesome life" with recipes for glamour, success, and sex: "Hot New Sex Tricks," "21 Naughty Sex Tips," "Little Mouth Moves that Make Sex Hotter," "67 New Blow-His-Mind Moves," and the like.
These "tricks and tips" are obviously self-help sales gimmicks and (ahem) come-ons. Yet if inner life is wintry enough, some readers may need Cosmo to kindle imagination. What really matters is something the magazine never considers: it's how you use tips and tricks—the spirit—that counts. If you can't imagine being in love, a heart symbol with initials in it is just graffiti.
Critics, especially feminists, object that Cosmo's tips are really being subservient to catch a man. They're mostly right, though more of me me me would also be a wintry solution based on the fear of being abandoned in the icy dark. Partners and lovers usually want to make each other happy. What matters is if "he" too brings generosity to bed. After all, as in playing Santa, lovemaking means you have to be able to imagine your partner's inner weather. In that case you're helping to create someone's experience: helping to make them feel real. That's not self-effacing, And if it's mutual, the forecast is for sunshine. But you don't go to Cosmo to learn about the subtleties of sharing.
Familiar consolations are always changing. The ancient seasonal symbols become plastic decorations thumbtacked to the wall. The icy blank snowscapes of winter can terrify you with their emptiness. They threaten to freeze and bury you. If you doubt it, look at the fad for "selfies." Beneath these ads for the self, these snapshots of me me me argue, "I exist." As with Scrooge and the Ghost of the fatal future, the deepest fear is that even "me me me" never gets enough life. You can hoard money, food, orgasms, love, and even philosophy, but whoever gets enough? Even romance is just mating, and all creatures are forced to do it or perish.
The saving awareness is that we live by imagination: We can play. Unlike birds and bees, we can love all sorts of people, animals, arts, and ideas. We discover new tricks and tips. We create. During a freeze, unemployment checks, food stamps, and imagination can keep circulation going till spring comes again. Like education, they're an investment in a season to come. Without that sharing, people under stress suffer frostbite and lose potential.
Winter blues confuses Scrooge with Santa. Take the jingle "Santa Claus is coming to town." It promises good things, but "You better not shout, you better not cry." It's a warning. Why? Because "He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake; he knows when you are good or bad, so be good for goodness sake." That's spying on you. Policing you. It's Scrooge in a Santa suit, chilling your spirit. Tug his beard and see if it's real.
Resources used in this essay:
1. Guardian, UK: <<http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/aug/07/cosmopolitan-false-promise-awesome-life
2. NY Times, January 18, 2014 - By MOISES VELASQUEZ-MANOFF - Print Headline: "When the Poor Get Cash."