The onslaught of cold weather and a prolonged pandemic mean keeping a healthy outlook is going to require some creativity

Maintain social distance at your outdoor gathering by seating family members together on one side of your fire.
Maintain social distance at your outdoor gathering by seating family members together on one side of your fire.

H

ere in the Pacific Northwest, we're accustomed to long, cold, dark winters, but this year's pandemic means the snowy season may be a little, or a lot, harder to handle.

As temperatures plummet and virus cases surge, it may indeed seem easier to just crawl into a den and hibernate until spring. But this year's challenges may actually be the perfect time to change up how we think about winter.

Gathering

Normal, indoor, festive and beloved wintertime holiday gatherings are probably not going to be possible this year, and that's just something we'll have to accept. But what if we reconsidered bringing back the safer, socially distanced backyard get-togethers we enjoyed in warmer months?

Once you've decided to embrace the cold, the first thing you're going to want is a source of heat. This can come in many forms: a fire pit, fire table, bonfire, or patio heater. And there's no reason to limit yourself to just one warm gathering spot.

"Fire pits come in all styles and sizes, and you can use them in a covered porch or out in the open," says Dave Jacobs, is the owner of Jacobs Custom Living, a Spokane-based business which specializes in quality outdoor furniture and accessories. "If you have a covered porch, and a way to circulate the air, a firepit can actually heat the area quite well."

He says this year, as people have been building new homes or remodeling parts of their current homes, many are adding covered decks because they've realized it opens up a space that's usable year-round.

Even with a heat source, keeping guests warm and comfortable means you need to think about insulation. Add cushions to wooden or metal chairs, and offer colorful throws for guests to wrap up in. Or you might consider a seasonal update by incorporating hay bale seats covered with fluffy blankets for a rustic gathering.

For an outdoor meal, set up a buffet in a tent or gazebo space, and decorate with hanging lights for added ambiance. A picnic table loosely draped with a pretty blanket adds to the cozy vibe; top it with a centerpiece crafted from simple materials like pine cones and branches twined with tabletop LED lights or nestled with candles in a bucket of snow.

When it comes to food and drinks, look for items that don't require a lot of prep or fancy plating, but instead are hearty and help guests warm up inside. Slow cookers brimming with soup or chili, and casseroles served in chafing dishes are easy to make in advance and keep warm while socially distanced partygoers move through the buffet.

For drinks, make it bring-your-own, and it's the perfect occasion for seasonal favorites like spiced apple cider and hot chocolate which, should you desire, can be made more festive by adding alcohol. Mulled wines, Irish coffee and hot toddies will be popular with adults.

To add to the fun, consider games guests could play fireside — from old-fashioned, low-tech favorites like charades to online games like Psych! that allow everyone to get out their phones and play along while staying toasty under a lap blanket. But keep in mind that moving around will help guests stay warm, so consider a brisk walk so you can keep your space in case you are with people not living with you..

It's important to make sure your guests know in advance that you're hosting an outdoor gathering and that they'll need to wear warm clothes and boots. Add a little fun by choosing a theme revolving around a color or pattern for outerwear or encouraging silly hats and scarves.

click to enlarge Nestle into a winter reading session with a furry companion and warm blanket.
Nestle into a winter reading session with a furry companion and warm blanket.

Nesting

Let's be real. We're going to be spending a lot of time indoors, with just a few people, for quite a while. And it's OK to be OK with that.

In fact, the Danish, who experience long, cold, dark winters just like ours, have a word for the feelings of winter's cozy, charming contentment: hygge. (English speakers approximate the difficult pronunciation as "hoo-gah" or "hue-gah.")

"If you're interested in hygge, the library has some great books to help you learn about it," says Spokane County Library public services manager Gwendolyn Haley.

Though hygge isn't concisely translated into English, the elements include togetherness, relaxation, indulgence, presence and comfort. It starts by creating the right atmosphere.

To set the scene this winter, try adding some new wood accents to a room, along with plants and extra light. Natural objects help bring the outside in, and extra light lifts your mood. Then indulge in scattering soft textures in the form of blankets and rugs, and fill the air with pleasant scents from candles or incense. These elements combine to create the feel of coziness and also activate pleasant memories.

Consider carving out a nook or a small space that's just your own for reading and relaxing. Having your own special place instantly sets a soothing mood.

Add some sparkle to the muted environment by choosing clothing crafted in soft fabrics with bright colors and playful patterns. These will keep you warm inside and out.

Haley says hygge resonates so well because it speaks to the activities people do during winter months to care for both themselves and their families.

"Some of those activities like baking, cooking and crafting are things the library is offering programs on this winter," she says. "And we've seen a lot of interest already, especially with families looking to do more together and make their homes cozy."

With library locations closed due to coronavirus, the district has switched its activities to virtual settings, and added curbside pickup for books.

"If you're not sure what book you'd like to read or check out, you can fill out a survey online, and we'll use that to create a list of suggested titles for you," she says. "If you're looking for a new hobby, we also offer a program called Creativebug that allows you to watch online art and crafts classes."

Haley says other programs offered online through the library district include classes on using that ubiquitous Instant Pot, meal planning, winter gardening, financial education and art projects. There's even a cake-baking challenge.

The library also hosts author visits with area writers, trivia events and read-aloud story time videos for children.

"Reading together is a great activity in winter, especially with the little ones," Haley says. "It's also a good time to learn board or card games and engage together as a family."

In December, Haley says the library has planned another session of it's Read-A-Rama program, an online camp with themes based on books with related crafts, music and game activities.

"This January we're planning a tea blending and book pairing program online as well," she adds. "If you're looking for activities, check out our website and Facebook pages for updates."

While many of the activities available through the library may seem indoor-focused, Haley says cardholders also have the option of checking out a Discover Pass for the week, which enables them to park for free and explore state parks.

"Our partnership with the Washington State Parks Foundation allows members to check out a pass, and enjoy the great natural spaces we have in this area," she says. "That's been a really popular program this year for sure."

Recreating

"We recognize that as it gets darker and colder, mental and physical health are harder to maintain," says Spokane Parks and Recreation director Garrett Jones. "So it's been very important to us to find ways to infuse positive activity in a safe way this winter."

For sporty and outdoor types, our region's parks and ski areas offer plenty of solo or small group exploration experiences. However, if you're looking for a little help, the Parks department does have recreational programs, activities and even events planned for the city's outdoor spaces this winter. Although a portion of the programs won't begin until the city moves into phase three of reopening, some of the new protocols the department has in place for programs and activities include increased sanitizing, modifying activities to maintain distancing, reducing class sizes, requiring participants to wear masks, new check-in procedures and better communication with participants.

Read All About It

How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life by Signe Johansen.

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking.

Making Winter: A Hygge-Inspired Guide for Surviving the Winter Months by Emma Mitchell.

The Hygge Life: Embracing the Nordic Art of Coziness Through Recipes, Entertaining, Decorating, Simple Rituals, and Family Traditions by Gunnar Karl Gíslason and Jody Eddy.

The Cozy Life: Rediscover the Joy of the Simple Things Through the Danish Concept of Hygge by Pia Edberg.

Scandikitchen: Fika & Hygge: Comforting Cakes and Bakes from Scandinavia with Love by Bronte Aurell.

Cozy: The Art of Arranging Yourself in the World by Isabel Gillies.

"A lot of it is about building public confidence, so they understand we're able to provide safe activities," Jones says. "We're in constant communication with health officials, and consistently review our programs to ensure we're not missing anything."

Winter recreational programs the department is offering include cross-country skiing and snowshoeing tours, including some by moonlight, for smaller groups.

"We'll also provide a list online of trails at area golf courses and conservation lands that have been groomed for hiking and snowshoeing," Jones says.

"Our Therapeutic Recreation Services (TRS) will be working with the Mt. Spokane ski program again this year on classes for those participants," he adds. "Another of our partners, the Corbin Art Center, is also offering classes for smaller groups."

Jones says the department will continue youth creative programs during the winter as well, including a new favorite, cornhole.

"We'd never offered that particular game before, but it was a surprise hit this summer so we'll move it indoors this winter," he says. "We also plan to bring back three-on-three volleyball."

As to attractions and events in the city's parks this season, Jones says the department plans to utilize its current tools, such as the renovated pavilion at Riverfront Park, in new ways.

"We had some success over the summer with re-imagining the Fourth of July fireworks as a drive-thru event," he says. "Many people enjoyed that change, so we hope to build on that with the attractions, events and programs in these colder months."

One early winter "win" for the department was coordinating with the Spokane Regional Health District on plans to safely reopen the Numerica Ice Ribbon in time for the holiday season.

Jones says the department also continues to work with other regional partners like the Downtown Spokane Partnership and the Public Facilities District for ideas on new events and cross-promotional activities.

He says one idea being considered is an outdoor winter market, that would include participation from area restaurants and local organizations.

"We're also looking at more passive activities, such as holiday lights, that would allow people to simply walk through and enjoy," Jones says. "This winter will be much more dynamic as we continue to adapt, so definitely stay tuned for updates."

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