On Surviving January: Lessons from Denmark, Japan, and Jesus

On whom can we pin the blame for January, I wonder? It doesn't seem quite fair to blame Janus, the God of beginnings and transitions, after whom the month is named, for this month's long misery. Although, the pressure to embrace new beginnings (all those resolutions!) during the year's most miserable month is likely part of our problem with January.

While we temper December's cold, dark days with holiday lights, lit fireplaces, and abundant gatherings, in January's colder, almost as dark days, we're supposed to get back to business. While December magazine covers feature warm, brightly lit scenes, January covers feature spare, organized spaces that don't exactly warm the heart (or body). In January, we take on energetic life improvement projects at the very time that nature tells our bodies that we'd best just pull the covers over our heads until March.

Fuoco from Flickr via Wylio © 2005 Franco, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

In an article widely shared on social media recently, a writer for the Mother Nature Network explains "7 cultural concepts we don't have in the US." One of those concepts, "hygge," hails from Denmark—a country with one of the happiest populations in the world despite its very cold, very long, very dark winters. Hygge is roughly translated as "cozy." The Danes keep their spirits up in their long winters by embracing every bit of joy and warmth that cold and darkness make possible—firelight, Christmas lights, candles, warm clothing and blankets, hot beverages and foods, and gatherings of people around all of the above. The writer, Starre Varten, quotes a Danish NPR commentator who explains hygge this way:

Hygge is a deep sense of cosy that can originate from many different sources. Here is a good example from my life : a cloudy winter Sunday morning at the country house, fire in the stove and 20 candles lit to dispel the gloom. My husband, puppy and I curled up on our sheepskins wearing felt slippers, warm snuggly clothes and hands clasped around hot mugs of tea. A full day ahead with long walks on the cold beach, back for pancake lunch, reading, more snuggling, etc. This is a very hyggligt day.

Varten follows that description by asking, "Now that sounds do-able, doesn't it?"

Well, actually, no. That doesn't sound doable. Not here in the U.S., anyway. Even leaving aside Sunday morning church obligations and that most of us don't own a country house, many of us probably read this description and think, "Sounds lovely. But no can do. The kids need rides to their lessons/practices/games and then need to get started on their homework/midterm studying/monthly book report. I need to finish my New Year's resolution project to organize all the family photos, and also check my email regularly because my boss is sending me the final edits on the report that's due on Tuesday. Who has time to sit by fires or take leisurely walks or read books for hours on end?"

Another cultural concept featured in this article is "wabi-sabi", which is "the Japanese idea of embracing the imperfect, of celebrating the worn, the cracked, the patinaed, both as a decorative concept and a spiritual one—it's an acceptance of the toll that life takes on us all."

If hygge is a viscerally appealing concept, wabi-sabi is a spiritually appealing one. This idea that we ought to value what is broken and well-used is also a foundation of our Christian faith. God came to us not as a conquering hero but as a vulnerable, needy baby with a body just as vulnerable as all our bodies are. Jesus's destiny was to allow his life to be used and his body savagely broken in service to God and out of love for God's people. As disciples, we are urged to use the resources we've been given, not keep them tucked away for some nebulous future need. Jesus continually puts those considered most broken and imperfect—the poor, the sick, the very young, the despised—at the center of his parables and ministry. Paul's words from 2 Corinthians explore one aspect of these Gospel paradoxes:

But the Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

This is the Christian paradox—that power comes via weakness, that God is most apparent in what is vulnerable and broken, that we meet God and become instruments of God's love when we embrace what is imperfect and use what we have, even to the point that it is all used up.

While hygge and wabi-sabi are two different concepts from two different cultures, in contemplating both, I'm seeing ways in which they might, together, help redeem even the miserable month of January.

Hygge confounds our cultural values of efficiency and nonstop work, our tendency to equate rest with laziness. January is so miserable for so many of us because this month's cold and dark expose the frayed limits of our physical capabilities. Our moods and energy are tied to the presence or absence of sunshine and dark, warmth and cold, and we can't overrule these intrinsic patterns with positive thinking or gritted teeth. Our lowered energy and craving for warmth and light in whatever forms we can find it—candlelight or electric light box, a communal meal or a hot drink—is not a sign of weakness, but of our innate and very human limits and needs. Yet we try to barrel through January, adding a few New Year resolutions for weight loss or a better organized home or new effort put into a work project on top of our usual responsibilities. We see a couple of hours spent reading in front of a fire or on a leisurely walk with our spouse as luxuries that we only deserve once we've gotten all our work done. And of course the work is never done.

What if, instead, we acknowledged the truth of wabi-sabi, embracing the stark fact that our imperfect, well-used bodies and psyches just don't work the same way in January as they do in May—and that wisdom abides within the limits imposed by darkness, bitter cold, lower energy, and the craving for quiet, coziness and warmth? What if we embraced, rather than pushed back against, the toll that a busy holiday season and early darkness and long cold days and our many responsibilities for work and family takes on our bodies and spirits? What if we looked for the small but significant joys to be found in allowing hygge to sustain our worn bodies and spirits until the renewed energy of spring comes again?

If this is all sounding a little theoretical and you're thinking, "Yeah, well, I'd love to sit in front of a fireplace and read, but we don't have any firewood and I have a lesson plan that isn't going to write itself and then there's the *$@#(%* kids whom I love but who won't leave me be for one blessed second," I get it. I do. I'm in the same place—in a fallow period in my writing life (no matter how many of these periods I live through, each one convinces me that this is it, I will never write another decent word again!), weary of the tedious lunch-making, carpooling, homework-supervising routine, frustrated by physical limitations and pain made worse by cold air and dangerous ice. But I'm still going to try to be more accepting of my limits and imperfections, more willing to engage in small rituals that foster warmth and companionship in this long, cold month, even if those rituals may appear lazy and unproductive.

Maybe an embracing of imperfection (wabi-sabi) combined with pursuit of nourishing coziness (hygge) will involve eating a big bowl of chili at next weekend's Chili Cook-Off without feeling bad if you don't bring a pot of chili yourself. Maybe it means making a cup of tea and reading for an hour tonight, instead of scrolling mindlessly through Facebook and feeling guilty because you let your kids play Wii for four hours today, instead of taking your kids skiing, then coming home and bonding over homemade hot cocoa while discussing Martin Luther King's legacy, which is what everyone else's Facebook status seems to indicate they did today. Maybe it means calling that friend with whom you've been trading "We should get together" emails for weeks and planning to meet for coffee or a drink, or inviting friends over for a simple soup meal and a great excuse to light some candles or kindle a fire.

Fundamentally, the concept of wabi-sabi is about looking for good things in imperfect places, and hygge is about seeking light and warmth in the darkness. In those simple terms, these concepts echo some fundamental Christian truths of power manifest in weakness, of light always shining in the dark. I can't think of a month that we need these truths more than January.

Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Her articles, blog posts, book chapters, and books have been published by the Christian Century, GeneWatch Magazine, the New York Times‘s Motherlode blog, OnFaith,Brain, Child Magazine, the Episcopal Cafe, Christianity Today, the Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) Foundation, Virtual Mentor (the American Medical Association’s online journal of ethics), and more. She blogs about faith, family, disability, and ethics at Patheos.