The Secret to Loving Winter

First accept it, then enjoy it.

Illustration by Arsh Raziuddin

When I was getting ready to leave my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, for college on the East Coast more than a decade ago, weather warnings came from everyone. “Get ready for that New England winter!” “I hope you have a big coat!” “Ooh, I hear it gets cold up there!”

This cautioning from friends and neighbors confused me. In my 18 years in the Midwest, I’d experienced huge snowfalls, multiple stretches of subzero temperatures, and an ice storm that closed school for three blissful days. Winter to my midwestern self meant sledding on school-cafeteria trays and poking Duraflame logs while in my pajamas and sneaking an extra packet of Swiss Miss into my mug. The average winter temperature in Missouri is only 4 degrees warmer than that in Massachusetts; other midwestern states such as Minnesota and North Dakota reliably sink to 12 degrees Fahrenheit in the colder months. What changed in those thousand or so miles to make the season “brutal,” “punishing,” and worthy of such grave warnings?

After more than a decade living on the East Coast, I feel pretty comfortable saying (with all the love in my heart for my new chosen home) that I know what makes winter here different: the complaining.

Of course, the Midwest is not a monolith. Plenty of us aren’t enamored with the colder months—which is midwestern for loathe them with a burning passion usually reserved for opposing sports teams. But many of us unabashedly love winter, ice scrapers and all. And now that climate change seems to be flipping the script on what, when, and even where winter is (welcome to the party, L.A.!), it might behoove coastal folks to peer through their plane window and check out how so-called flyover country manages to not merely endure the season, but enjoy it. Our attitude toward the cold months is pretty similar to our attitude toward most things: accept reality, then decide to appreciate it.

Midwesterners inhabit the middle ground in more ways than one. We spend a lot of time operating at the intersection of “what I want” and “what is possible.” This usually involves inconvenience, asking for favors, and giving up some stuff in that former category. We don’t expect to have our hot dish and eat it too. Our culture of compromise knows that in exchange for big yards that host summer barbecues, we’re giving up easy international travel. (A three-hour layover in Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; Houston; New York; or Boston is the midwestern prerequisite for any European vacation.) When it comes to weather, we know what we’re missing and what we’re getting. Am I going to be able to feel my toes? No. Am I finally going to speed down the hill outside the local high school on the sled that I got for 70 percent off at Target last June? Yes, I am.

The thing is, for every winter irritation, there is an equal and opposite elation. Cars trapped in snow give the neighborhood kids a shot at earning a few extra bucks or the guy across the street a chance to show off his new snowblower. A football game in a 15-degree snowstorm provides a chance to demonstrate unwavering commitment to fandom. (We can’t show the people we love that they’re worth standing in the freezing cold for if there’s no freezing cold to stand in.)

Our focus on the bright side is rooted not in naivete or denial, but in an understanding of reality. We frequently find ourselves defending the weather: a tentpole of midwestern winter conversation is announcing that it’s “not so bad without the wind” or “not too cold so long as you’re standing in the sun.” We’re not suffering delusions. We’re just electing to focus our attention on the best possible version of our circumstances.

Still, a clear-eyed acceptance of winter demands preparation. We make a reverent ritual of swapping out summer clothes for winter ones: Plastic bins are removed from under the beds, basement storage units are opened, and coats are moved from one closet to another closet closer to the door. We stock our car trunks with blankets, ice scrapers, and hand warmers to ensure that even the worst-case scenario isn’t too bad.

But the key to our winter enjoyment is that we don’t spend nearly as much energy girding ourselves for the tough times as we do getting geared up for the awesome ones: basketball and football seasons, the holidays, and, for teenagers, the ever-present hope that Mom will come in at 6:45 a.m. and say “School’s canceled” because of snow, granting them three to seven more hours of the best sleep of their life.

There’s a misconception on the coasts, I think, that the default state of a midwesterner is one of resignation. That midwesterners are stuck there. That moving away, like I have done, is an act of escape rather than sacrifice. That those who stay make it through the horrors of winter by performing resilience or imagining fun.

The truth is that many of us love the season, and our love comes not from pretending but from understanding. Wonderful things happen because of the freezing temperatures and the precipitation and the wind, not in spite of them. Snow days require snow. Cute gloves need cold hands. My midwestern advice? Think of this time as its own rich, wonderful destination—instead of that season you just have to fly over on your way to spring.