It’s that time again — Winter. I have never been fond of this time of year. When I think of winter, the first thoughts that come to mind are cold, damp, dark, and dreary. I remember vividly walking to school on cold mornings as a child. The streets were barren of people, the trees looked dead, and the color of the sky was a putrid gray. As the sun struggled to get through, it looked as if the world was about to end. All the signs of life’s existence had vanished, leaving no indication that spring would ever return.
Winter can be a sad, depressing time of year. Research shows that many people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which affects four times as many women as men. SAD is a mild form of depression brought on by a decrease in the amount of sunlight, which lead to higher melatonin levels and lower serotonin levels. Melatonin is a hormone that balances your circadian rhythms—your sleep and wake cycles. It is produced by the body during the late afternoon and early evening when it gets dark, causing you to feel drowsy and ready for sleep. With the added darkness, higher melatonin levels are as common as the desire to hibernate. Sunlight plays a role in serotonin production, too. Studies show this feel good neurotransmitter, responsible for mood, hunger, and sleep, declines in winter months in people susceptible to SAD.
Recently I was reading the Greek Mythology story of Persephone, goddess queen of the underworld and wife of Hades, with my children, and it gave me a greater appreciation of the meaning of winter. One sunny day Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, was picking flowers. As she pulled a narcissus flower, the earth started to shift and tremble, and before she knew it she was riding in a golden chariot to the underworld with Hades. Demeter was so distraught at the loss of Persephone, she forgot her duties as Goddess of Grain and Growth, and soon the lush flora died off. As her outer world became bleak, Demeter became even more depressed.
Eventually, Zeus (who had caused Persephone’s fate) sent his messenger Hermes to the underworld to bring Persephone home to her mother. Hades, who loved Persephone, also understood her love for her mother, so he allowed her to return to earth. Rather than a frightened child, this bride of the God of the Underworld had embraced her duties as the Goddess of the Underworld, helping the dead transition to their new life. And so it came to be that a new cycle was created. Persephone spent six months with her mother above ground, when the world was rich with greenery and rebirth, and six months with her beloved husband. Every year when winter came, Demeter experienced loss all over again.
As I started to ponder the story of Persephone, a new signal was sent to my brain. I now see it as a story of renewal. When Persephone goes to the underworld every six months, the freezing, withering earth has a chance to rest. Fields lie fallow while trees and plants to sleep. Like us, they must go within to experience life. Similarly, we need to take care of ourselves differently in winter to recharge ourselves, which we do by hibernating, cuddling, snuggling with blankets, sitting by the fire, or spending time with friends. This story has changed my outlook on winter. Instead of focusing on the dreary months ahead, I respect mother earth’s need to sleep, to rest, and to replenish herself so she can regain the energy she needs to nurture new seeds of growth, her flowers, and the fruit her trees will bear to feed us. I now find I’m more likely to honor the winter season even as I look forward to what spring will bring.