Christmas “snugness”

In his book  Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature, Jerry Griswold explores five sensations particularly important in childhood. In the excerpt below, he examines “snugness” and its particular association with Christmas.  

griswold“Cozy Time”

Turning from space to time, we can note that there are certain occasions especially apt for an evocation of snugness. Mole and Rat [in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows], for example, are driven to Badger’s cozy home by a winter storm and find there a refuge where they can warm and dry themselves, relax and rest.

Meteorologically speaking, the best condition for an evocation of snugness is stormy weather. Horrific storms, like those that assault the alpine home in Heidi, demarcate even more dramatically the hostility of the universe in contrast to the snugness of the shelter. But even mildly inclement weather like that of the British isles can provide an occasion for a vision of indoor coziness. In the closing words of The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, Hugh Lofting’s character returns at long last to his home and invites his guests inside on a drizzling day: “You know, there’s something rather attractive in the bad weather of England—when you’ve got a kitchen fire to look forward to. . . . Four o’clock! Come along—we’ll just be in time for a nice tea.”

Besides stormy weather, seasonally, the best time for an evocation of snugness is winter, especially after snow has fallen. The heightened contrast between the cold outdoors and the warmth indoors, between the monochromes of a snow-covered world outside and a colorful vividness inside, sharpens boundaries and assigns value to the cozy haven.

In the northern hemisphere, at least, one of the best dates on the calendar for an evocation of snugness is Christmas. Perhaps the most touching moment in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is the family tableau created when father comes home from the war, steps out of winter’s cold and damp, closes the door behind him, and reunites with his wife and four daughters around the fire on Christmas Day. Indeed, Mole and Rat’s visit to Badger’s home takes place during this holiday season.

But more than any other occasion, nighttime and bedtime are especially apt times for visions of snugness. When Heidi comes to live in her grandfather’s hut, he allows her to choose where she will sleep during her stay. Investigating various places, Heidi finally climbs into the attic, assembles a cozy nest for herself from the hay there, covers it with a sheet, and retires at night to slumber there. Then follows a universally familiar and touching scene that might be called The Tableau of the Sleeping Child. Grandfather, worried that Heidi might be frightened on her first night in the Alps, checks on her: “He mounted the ladder and went and stood by the child’s bed. . . . Just now the moonlight was falling through the round window straight on to Heidi’s bed. She lay under the heavy coverlet, her cheeks rosy with sleep, her head peacefully resting on her little round arm, and with a happy expression on her baby face as if dreaming of something pleasant.”

In the middle of Spyri’s book, however, Heidi is taken from her grandfather and sent to live with strangers in Frankfurt. Not feeling at home in the Sesemann’s mansion and besieged by the tyrannical governess Miss Rottenmeier, Heidi feels more like a bird in a cage than a bird in its nest. She grows homesick and ill. Her distress is revealed by a sleep disorder: she begins to sleepwalk, always opening the door of the mansion she longs to escape. Fortunately, the family physician is also adept with psychological problems and prescribes a remedy for her dis-ease and somnambulism: Heidi is to be sent back to the Alps.

Heidi’s reunion with her grandfather is the most touching moment in the book. This homecoming is also a return to snugness and sound sleep:

Later when Heidi went indoors, she found her bed already made up for her; the hay had been piled high for it and smelt deliciously, for it had only just been got in, and her grandfather had carefully spread and tucked in the clean sheets. It was with a happy heart that Heidi lay down in it that night, and her sleep was sounder than it had been all the time she was away. Her grandfather got up at least ten times during the night and mounted the ladder to see if Heidi was all right. . . . But Heidi did not stir. She slept soundly all night long because the great burning and longing of her heart was at last satisfied. 

Perhaps the connection between snugness and sleeping is obvious. Restful sleep, and even the light somnolence of napping, requires conditions of ease and security, a comfort absent of potential threats, a well being in which one is able to relax. Even a dog will not curl up and slumber if these conditions are absent. And these conditions for sleep—serenity, safety, agreeableness, and so forth—amount to a description of snugness. A snug place, we might say, is a place where one can sleep or nap.

In any event, all these temporal conditions—winter and Christmas, nighttime and bedtime, sleeping and dreaming—come together in Clement Moore’s well known poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” where under “the moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,” Santa’s arrival is imminent:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. 

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.

Here, again, is the Tableau of the Sleeping Child (or children) seen in Heidi when grandfather looks in on the little girl so cozy in her attic nest and “dreaming of something pleasant.” Here, too, “visions of sugarplums” dance in the heads of dreaming children “nestled all snug in their beds.” So, there is one last topic for us to explore and that is the connection between snugness and dreaming.

Jerry Griswold is professor emeritus of literature at San Diego State University and former director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. He is the author of seven books, including Audacious Kids: The Classic American Childrens Story and Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literatureboth published by Johns Hopkins University Press.