The Holiday Chill

Published in Toaster Magazine, December 2006

Every year, when I walk into a store around Thanksgiving and for the first time that season I hear holiday music playing, a specific thought enters my mind: “There’s been a terrible mistake! They’ve started too early!”

This thought doesn’t refer to those stores that decide to play Christmas carols and Mannheim Steamroller before the Thanksgiving turkey has even hatched (though yes, that circumstance prompts this thought as well… as well as projectile vomiting.) Rather, it’s a thought that has only started tickling my mind the past few years, ever since I’ve lived in LA.

It is because of this: the holiday season, to a Midwesterner like myself, is equated with one very specific thing: cold weather.

Let’s be clear on one thing about winter. I hate it. Escaping the snow and arctic temperatures was one major motivating factor for my moving to Los Angeles after college rather than to Chicago or New York City. But yet, after not having seen any of that white fluffy stuff for years, I do feel a tickle of nostalgia for that pristine blanket that covers the world, softening everything to gentle drifts of pure white.

Cold is a unique beast amongst all the elements that Mother Nature can throw at us. No other phenomenon of weather affects us so completely, forces us to adapt in so many ways, and permeates our daily lives so thoroughly. Cold weather comes upon us slowly, insidiously, creeping into the fold with frigid tendrils, slipping through the minute cracks of our houses, the gaps in our clothing, softly at first, just gently stroking our exposed skin with goosebumps. It’s easy to ignore the first signs of winter, while we are still blissfully reveling in the waning sunlight of summer and dancing in the autumn colors. But before long, entire swaths of the world bow down to the harsh requirements of a dropping thermometer. In these places Frosty the Snowman is more than just a fairy tale. In these places winter’s teeth are more than just a figure of speech but jaggedly adorn every house’s eaves, icy spikes both beautiful and menacing, and the wind cuts through every shirt and sweater and scarf and coat in one fell stroke. In these places the arrival of winter means more than a change of wardrobe but a complete change of lifestyle, for when stepping out into the world beyond your front door requires preparation for survival it prompts a second- and third-thought as to whether this exodus from your comfortable nest is really necessary. People are more apt to remain indoors during these months; daily routines change to include defrosting and scraping and shoveling; daily plans revolve more around ways to stay warm than anything else.

Living in Southern California, I am now surrounded by Angelenos who can’t really understand the whole “dreaming of a white Christmas” thing or sleighbells or “snowdays” or any of that. While the rest of the world hunkers down during this time of year, huddling together to stay warm and ward off frostbite, those of us in more temperate climes shiver when the temperature drops below 60° and wear short sleeves on Christmas Day.

The fair weather in November is a fact my mind still has trouble comprehending. This will be my third holiday season in California and yet the lack of cold weather during this time of year sets off a huge klaxon of cognitive dissonance every time Thanksgiving rolls around and I’m still outside without subzero survival gear.

Yes, I hate the winter. But yet… setting aside the death-causing weather, the discomfort, the ever-pervasive digging filaments of temperature… there yet remains a behavior that, while not unique to the cold, is far more inspired by it than by any other form of weather.

It is this: the drawing together of people, the need to be close to one another to ward off the chill of the season, the desire to gather together many people into one small space and share laughs and lives.

All my past relationships have taken place during the fall and winter months. As the leaves started to fall and the mercury drop, it seemed everyone around me began looking for that someone with whom to cuddle away the dark winter nights. It’s much nicer to spend those times with someone, rather than alone; while those of us who live alone always have the option of sallying forth to seek out human contact, inclement weather poses quite an obstacle and makes it much less convenient. It forces that second- and third-thought of necessity. There’s much more commitment required. When you’re dating someone, however, it’s a little more likely the dark winter nights will be spent with you, drawing close to ward off the weather, sharing eggnog and horror stories about holidays past. During the times when I was in a relationship, it was always comforting to know that I would have someone in bed with me on those nights when even the wind howling at the windows sounded cold and lonely.

My first year of college, I dated a nice boy who happened to live in the same dorm… only one floor above me, in fact. (Considering the fact that this dorm hails amongst the top five largest dormitories in the world, this fact was even more fortunate. Tromping to the other end of that dorm building is the equivalent of crossing an entire college campus at some small liberal arts schools.) He was in the ‘hell year’ of the graphic design program: the second year, after jumping through all the hoops and suffering portfolio review and having survived the culling of hopefuls from two hundred-some down to sixty. This is the year that calls for you to set aside the rest of your life, to work on projects ten to twenty hours a day, to choose Pantone color swatches over peanut butter sandwiches, to choose Bodoni and Futura and Helvetica and Garamond and Silentium over bedtime and family and health and grades and sanity. Much of the time we spent together was whilst working on our respective homework assignments, sheltered within his dorm room, me conjugating and declining Latin and sometimes lending a hand (and occasionally suffering minor injury) cutting, cropping, and mounting design pieces for him. In the wee hours of the morning, when I couldn’t even speak English without it coming out in the speech of Cæsar and he couldn’t hold an Xacto without it slicing into a body part, we’d collapse into bed, cuddling away the bitter chill of an Iowa winter’s night. During that season, we ventured outside the protection of our dorm only to attend classes and the occasional party—that was it. All our other needs were met within the confines of those walls and we drew together with our fellow dormies and waited out winter’s wrath.

A few years later, during my ‘hell year’ of design, I had the fortune of having a boyfriend willing to put up with the insane hours I’d keep and the constantly-near-breaking-point stress level I had. He didn’t have to keep the insane 8am-to-4am hours I needed to, so when I would return to my apartment in the wee hours of the morning I would find him already comfortably asleep in my bed. I would undress, crawl into bed with him, wrap my arms around him, and fall into dreamland comfortably warm and snuggled, lying together and just forgetting the world.

I think it’s no coincidence that what we call the ‘holiday season,’ which gives us multiple opportunities to draw together as friends and family, comes at a time when Jack Frost is tripping along freely throughout much of the Western world. When leaving the comfort of your own home means braving possible death from exposure, it’s best to get the most bang for your buck and assemble as many people together as can safely fit in a room without breaking fire code. It’s a time when hugs are freely given, the drinks should flow, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll all succumb to that cliché of ‘holiday cheer’ and be just a little bit more kind to those around us.

And yet, even these festive occasions must end. After lingering and drawing out the evening as long as possible, there comes the time when it’s time to re-don the seven layers of gay apparel and venture back out into the world, shuffling as quickly as possible without falling on the glaciers of ice underfoot, and sit shivering in the car until it warms up and the defrosters kick in. Then for me it was on to home and, more often than not, climbing into a cold, empty bed and cuddling close to blankets and sheets, wrapping dreams of future husbands and future lives around me for protection against the winter’s fury.

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Pieces about my life and other thoughts, for better or for worse. Mostly for worse.