’Tis the season to sleep, eat, and hunker down. Technically humans can’t hibernate, but the idea is tempting. Our farming ancestors worked long hours to plant and harvest, followed by winters of comparative rest. Then came the Industrial Revolution and electric lights. Now we expect to sustain a busy life year round, but that’s not to say we’re built for it.
The British Medical Journal in 1900 reported how Russian peasants survived chronic famine:
"At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread, of which an amount sufficient to last six months has providently been baked in the previous autumn. When the bread has been washed down with a draught of water, everyone goes to sleep again. The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight. After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself, goes out to see if the grass is growing, and by-and-by sets to work at summer tasks."
Researchers have found human genes similar to those that trigger animal hibernation. Increases in sleep and appetite associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) resemble hibernation more than clinical depression. By all means use light therapy or medication if it helps, but let’s not berate ourselves for lowered ambition or flail against snow and cold. It’s all part of nature’s seasonal message to slow down.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.