Winter in a nineteenth-century village was a season of stilless and restoration. Snow fell, waterways froze, earth hardened to stone. Farmers envisioned next year’s crops, sat by the fire, visited neighbors. They drank. Women cooked from larders bulging after a harvest season they had spent cellaring root crops and preserving perishables with the help of smoke, vinegar, salt, fat, and alcohol.
When night fell, folks sat up a while, then went to bed, mainly because they were tired or cold, or because there wasn’t enough light to see. Barn animals still had to be cared for in the morning, but otherwise winter was a time of reflection, togetherness, and relative leisure. Young people, freed from helping in the fields, could study or play. Sundays, people worshipped at church. Afterward, if conditions were good, skaters ventured out to glide across ice.
Joesph Moriller’s 1869 lithograph depicts villagers engaged in peaceful winter routines. This winter, my habits, homebound due to the pandemic, are more like those villagers’ than they’ve ever been. I seldom go out. My days, if busy, are sedentary. I don’t commute to work. I seldom drive. I cook like crazy. My circle of association is cherished and tiny. I notice the moon in the limitless black sky.
Yet, the nineteenth century featured a type of serenity, an intensity of direct experience, we creatures of mass society cannot attain. Its conditions were more elemental and earthy. Illness, injury, and death loomed large, starkly menacing life, love, and prosperity. Humans, defenseless against certain types of suffering, endured with a sincere and fervent reliance on Providence. Modern people, so much more heavily equipped with knowledge and remedies, need faith less, living from cradle to grave without what’s divine.
Nor can we access the simplicity of a purely local, face-to-face society. In the nineteenth century, the society of the village and household was strictly bounded, a condition the railroad and telegraph had just begun to break down. Local people knew one another thoroughly. The intimacy of home life was seldom punctuated, as ours is, with distressing communications of all sorts streaming in everyday. Word traveled less. The very mystery of what lay beyond the horizon, or beyond human ken, paradoxically promoted tranquility and intense personal joy.
Image: from this source.