Embracing Winter

Before I moved to Wisconsin, I’m not sure I’d ever even seen a cross-country ski. As a kid growing up near Seattle, winter was a destination, not a season.  On Monday mornings, my classmates returned to school with creased lift tags dangling from the zippers of their coats, and their red, sunburned faces raccoonishly imprinted with goggles. But my parents, Chicagoans by birth, didn’t ski, had never skied, and certainly weren’t about to start downhill skiing in their late 30s. So winter remained more of an abstraction to me, a snowy realm I could see on the flanks of the Cascades – far off in the distance.

Things were different in Wisconsin. Winter was unavoidable, an elemental part of life. Even so, I often overheard people talking about how they “got through it” as if it were a messy divorce or a one-hundred-year flood rather than an annual occurrence. I learned to “get through” winter on cross-country skis.

Once you get the motion right – the kicking and gliding, riding the driving ski with your body floating above – you discover the grace of skimming through still air and snow. Sliding and poling your way along, cross-country skis make no more noise than a kayak slipping through flat water.

Even the first awkward tries can have grace. My first cross-country skis were rentals. Stepping onto the strips of what seemed to me unimaginably thin plastic, my feet slid forward and I fell backward. Three falls later, I was off, shuffling and jerking my arms and puffing the arctic air. Despite myself, I soon fell into a rhythm, sloppily syncopated but forward marching, punctuated by my growing elation.

With snow and skis, I can go anywhere, over a frozen pond and through the interior of the woods. In the spring and summer, I’d worry about my path, anxious to find a trail map to keep from getting lost. But in the winter, my ski tracks are reassurance, guiding me back to my start.

When Lake Mendota freezes, I glide out onto its surface, a wide expanse of flat, snow-covered ice that feels eerily empty yet magical before the packed shoreline of the city. Part of the spell is skiing past the ghosts of summer – boathouses, sections of dock, lawn chairs, a life preserver. The Memorial Union Terrace, the center of summer in Madison, sits unobtrusively under a blanket of snow.  The bright paint of upturned boats now splotched with snow seem a bit more solemn in the stark winter light. Yet at the same time, the sky rarely feels so large or so vivid.

There’s peace on two skis. The muffled quiet of the snow seems to magnify every other sound. The rustle of dried branches, bird calls, the swirl of my thoughts. Now I’m the one with the weekend winter stories, of quiet wonders found skiing in snowy woods and fields. It’s not showy but more exhilarating than anything I could imagine.


A Water Cure of Their Own

An escape to the country for rest, relaxation, and lots of water was just what many people seeking water cures in the mid-19th century wanted. And when we think of our own habits of escaping to somewhere watery and cool in hot weather, it seems crazy that water cures actually advertised the opposite – that winter, or at least more temperate times of year, were the best time to take the cure.  It certainly had its perils. The cold could quickly freeze the wet blankets wrapped around patients. One patient complained of icicles raining down on his head when he stopped at the outdoor shower for his daily wash. It was all part of the cure, though.

While all kinds of people traveled to water cures, women found them particularly attractive. For many, it was one of the few times in their life when they could put the needs of their husbands, children, and homes aside. A stay at the cure was a chance for women to be pampered at a time when womanhood offered little in the way comfort for any but the very wealthy.

Writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame) discovered the wonders of the water cure on her own visit to the Brattleboro Hydropathic Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont. Suffering from the death of her brother, a recent miscarriage, chronic mercury poisoning (from previous medical care), and cholera, Stowe described herself as reduced to a state of “uselessness,” and in dire need of some medical attention. So she traveled to Brattleboro in 1846 to try the water cure. She liked it so much, her husband Calvin feared she might never come home.

“Not for years, have I enjoyed life as I have here,” Stowe admitted, “real keen enjoyment – everything agrees with me.” She loved the daily exercise – “I walk habitually five miles a day – at intervals between my baths, never in my poorest days less than three – and in some good days I have walked 7 – & not suffered for it.” It was some of the most vigorous activity she’d had in years. As a married woman, her mobility had become insular and mostly indoors, limited to the movements of the housewife and mother. She also loved the companionship of her fellow patients. In January, Stowe wrote “We still splash on here & it grows colder & colder.” The bar she held on to during her outdoor shower was covered with a half-inch of ice but she still took 5 or 6 showers a day and walked miles in the cold Vermont countryside.

Calvin grew less enthused with the water cure, though, as his wife’s absence stretched on for more than a year. He couldn’t wait for her to return,  reminding her that it had been “almost 18 months since I have had a wife to sleep with me. It is enough to kill any man.”

Stowe did eventually come home, but she never forgot the pleasures of the water cure and the brief space she had that was all her own.

Wassailing the New Year

Here we come a-wassailing 
Among the leaves so green; 
Here we come a-wand’ring 
So fair to be seen. 
Love and joy come to you, 
And to you your wassail too; 
And God bless you and send you 
a happy New Year.

We all know the song, as familiar as nearly any other holiday song. And while I often happily sing along to songs that I have no idea what they mean (or perhaps I’m just singing all the wrong words – a post for another time), this one made me pause. I’m coming a-what? And we’re wishing it love and joy?

Wassailing is the practice of thanking the deity of the apple orchards to encourage fertility and ensure next year’s crop. The term wassail probably comes from the Old Norse ves heil and the Old English was hal meaning to “be in good health.” It was originally used as a greeting but became so integrated into drinking rituals in England that the invading Normans who arrived in 1066 thought it was a toast distinctive to the island. Wassail also came to mean the drink used for the toast, which was usually a spiced wine known as Renwein. Because the wine and the spices had to be imported, it was a precious commodity among early English families. Recipes varied among families based on who could afford which ingredients.  Later, beer became an acceptable and widely used wassail.

Dancing in the Cider Orchard

Wassailing became an important practice (and the seeming social event of the season) in cider growing areas of England at least as far back as the 18th century. Held on the eve of Twelfth Night in early January, revelers placed a jug of cider or a piece of cider-soaked bread or cake on the biggest apple tree to honor the gods. In other places, trees are sprinkled with cider. A chant or song nearly always accompanied the offering, and the ceremony generally concluded with the banging of pots and kettles, the firing of guns, and the blowing of horns. These noises were either intended to awake the tree gods or to scare away evil spirits – or maybe a little bit of both. Some people still celebrate today.

So next time you hear the song, bless the apple trees for the coming of spring and maybe make yourself some wassail to ward off evil spirits.


Recipes for wassail vary widely, and can have a base of beer, wine, or cider. This recipe is based on a Tudor concoction.

10 small apples

10 teaspoons brown sugar

2 bottles dry sherry or dry Madeira

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground ginger

3 cloves

3 allspice berries

1 stick cinnamon

2 cups superfine sugar

1/2 cup water

6 eggs, separated

1 cup brandy

Heat oven to 350°F. Core the apples and fill each with a teaspoon of brown sugar. Place in a baking pan and fill the bottom with 1/8-inch of water. Bake for 30 minutes or until tender. Set aside.

Combine the sherry or Madeira, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon, sugar, and water in a large, heavy saucepan and heat without letting the mixture come to a boil. Leave on very low heat.

Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks until light and lemon-colored. Beat the whites until stiff and fold them into the yolks. Strain the wine mixture and add gradually to the eggs, stirring constantly. Add the brandy. Pour into a metal punch bowl and float the apples on top. Makes about 10 servings.