Starving Time

It’s been a hard winter here in New England. The city of Boston is still struggling to cope with record-breaking snow accumulations. In my corner of Vermont, we haven’t seen bare ground since early December. And the cold has been unrelenting. Last night the temperature fell to minus 24 degrees Fahrenheit.

fox hunting groundIn the last few weeks, our yard has been increasingly filled with the tracks of wild animals, which has heightened my awareness that, as challenging as this winter has been for us humans, it’s nothing compared to the life-threatening hunger faced by animals.

When our water pipes froze last week and we were without running water for about 24 hours, it also prompted me to wonder what the Puritans did for water in the winter. A simple question maybe, but when I went looking I couldn’t find a ready answer. I know they dug wells and often lived close to rivers and streams, so probably one of their many daily chores was chopping ice to access water. It’s one of those time-consuming seasonal tasks that now hardly merits a mention in history books.

We know that the settlers of Plymouth Colony suffered terribly in the harsh winter of Untitled-11620. They called it the “starving time” and nearly half of them died. Possibly they all would have perished without the help of generous Native Americans. They learned a vital lesson: in New England, you have to prepare for winter.

In the 17th century, getting ready for winter meant stocking food. Nuts, seeds, root vegetables, grains, and legumes were harvested and stored. Domestic animals were slaughtered in the fall, since it wasn’t practical to feed them through the Untitled-2winter. Their flesh was preserved through salting and smoking. The daily winter menu was bread, cheese, beans, and meat boiled with whatever root vegetables were available.

As many pundits have commented, we 21st century Americans look kind of silly packing t grocery store to stock up on bread and milk whenever there’s news of a coming snowstorm. Very few of us are likely to be snowed in for more than a day. But instead of feeling embarrassed, maybe we should see it as a variation of a long and life-giving winter tradition: be prepared.

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Cold Worship

cold2We’ve just emerged from a cold spell here in New England, with the temperatures bouncing between 20 below and 20 above.  I’ve been more grateful than usual for central heating and wood fires, but it got me thinking about the Puritans and how they managed in the winters. While their homes were equipped with fireplaces that, though they were poorly designed for heating rooms, still put out enough heat to warm a person who was standing near them, their meeting houses were not.  Worship was conducted in the cold.

In the late 1600’s, Judge Samuel Sewall of Boston recorded the effects of the weather in his journal: “Extraordinary Cold Storm of Wind and Snow.  Blows much as coming home at Noon, and so holds on.  Bread was frozen at the Lord’s Table.  Though ‘t was so cold John Tuckerman was baptized.  At six o’clock my ink freezes, so that I can hardly write by a good fire in my Wives chamber.  Yet was very Comfortable at Meeting.”

Samuel Sewall (1652-1730)

Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It makes one wonder what he meant by “comfortable.”  Perhaps he was referring to the warmth of the fellowship.  Or the warmth generated by many bodies in an enclosed space.  Probably it was no colder than anywhere else.  After all, he was used to sitting in rooms so cold that, even when next to the fire, his ink froze.

There were two services each Sunday, and the entire congregation was expected to be present. It must have been nearly unbearable to sit through a one-or-two hour sermon in sub-zero weather.

There are records of ministers annoyed by the people who stamped their feet and swung their arms to keep warm during the service.  Those who could afford them sometimes brought small metal foot stoves filled with hot coals to keep their feet warm.  But such items were prohibited in some churches, for fear they might start a fire. There is a report that sometimes bags made of animal skins were nailed to the edge of the benches for worshippers to warm their feet.  In some places, people brought their dogs to lie on their feet, which created problems of another kind.

I began to think about what the churches they left in England must have been like.  And it struck me that they didn’t have sources of heat, either.  Most were built of stone and might have been even colder inside than out.  The most they did was keep out the wind.  So people simply wore their outdoor clothing when they worshipped in the winter.

The more I’ve researched the Puritans the more I’ve been struck by how little their lives differed from those of the friends and relatives they’d left behind in England.  The only difference was that in New England the winters were generally colder.

In other words, people simply expected to be cold in winter – wherever they were.  It was an unremarkable part of life.  And, no doubt, it made the arrival of spring all the more appreciated.