“On earth where sun departs,/ shadows are spreading,” sing the bright voices of female choristers. Members of the congregation extend their necks like ostriches to see over the heads in front of them and children stand upright like meercats on their parents’ laps. Everyone is trying to catch their first glimpse of the light procession. Then I see her – a girl dressed all in white, but for a red sash around her waist and wearing a crown of tall candles on top of her long, blonde hair. For a moment, I step out of the atmosphere and consider what a health and safety hazard that is. But the voices soon suck me back in –“Then on our darkest night/ Comes with her shining light/ Sankta Lucia!” It’s a murky morning on 13 December and Scandinavia is celebrating St Lucy’s day – a festival of light to mark one of the darkest days of the year.
The festival is thought to be a mix of the Christian St Lucy’s day and an old pagan tradition called Lussinatt, when a demon-like being was believed to roam the dark skies. A hearty celebration on this day was thought to help get through the rest of the winter days. Today, in primary schools throughout Norway, children dress up in over-sized white t-shirts borrowed from their parents and each year one child is always picked to play Lucy.
Marking the official start of the Christmas season, St Lucy’s day epitomises how Scandinavians approach the long and dark winter nights. They are, without a doubt, the world experts in getting through winter and we lesser mortals could learn a thing or two from them about surviving with the dark.
1. Use candles everywhere, all the time
In the spirit of St Lucy’s day, candles really do make the best of a gloomy situation and Scandis love them. According to the British Department of Trade and Industry, Scandinavians get through twenty times as many candles as Brits. And it’s easy to see how – go into any café in Oslo on a wintry morning and there’s guaranteed to be a tea light lit at every table. After all, why wait until the darkness comes when it’s so grey outside?
2. Embrace all things koselig (koo-sheh-li)
Most dictionaries will translate koselig as ‘cosy’ in English. Perhaps one of the most frequently heard words in the Norwegian language, koselig is far more than just plain cosy – it’s a whole concept. My Norwegian friends describe koselig as snug, cosy, warm and fuzzy, comfortable – often a word used to describe a particular place or setting. Wiktionary (clearly an authority on the matter) describes it as the sensation of everything being nice and comfortable, often evoking an emotional response experienced when spending time with other people. However you choose to translate it, around this time of year, koselig very clearly starts with candles and continues on to snug blankets, log fires, eating pepperkaker (gingerbread biscuits) and drinking gløgg (like mulled wine, but sweeter). Basically, koselig makes the prospect of winter seem... well... koselig.
3. Get the gear
The Norwegians have a saying: det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlig klær – there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes (in Norwegian it rhymes nicely). Norwegians have a lot of warm-weather gear and I don’t think it’s just because they think fat down jackets look good. I can safely say we Brits are terrible at getting this bit right – I’ve seen people wearing flip-flops in the snow and wondering why they’re cold. Norwegians will inform you that woollen underwear is a must in the winter months, along with a proper coat and boots with grips on the soles. Don’t accept the smooth-soled things shops outside of Norway will try to fob you off with – you’ll be lucky to stay upright on a polished floor in those, let alone the ice. Norwegians are also very safety conscious in the dark days, often seen sporting reflective bands around their arms to make them more visible to cars.
4. Partake in all the festivities you can
‘Tis the season to be jolly for fear that you might realise how damn dark and depressing it is outside. Enjoying good food and wine during the dark months has long been a tradition in this part of the world and for good reason. The festivities begin in late November in Norway when the julebords – Christmas parties, but wilder – begin and ensure that everyone oscillates between a drunk-at-work and hungover-at-work state for much of December. Apparently, getting carried away during julebord season is a serious problem for many – 360,000 Norwegians said that they knew someone who had ended up in the wrong bed after a work julebord, according to a survey conducted for alcohol-awareness organisation AV-OG- TIL. If making a fool of yourself at the office isn’t enough, then lucky for you the pre- Christmas feasting is not just limited to work events. Go out in Oslo on a Friday night in December and you’re sure to see groups of men dressed up in tuxedos on their “boys’ julebord” night out.
5. Find a hobby that you can only do in winter
Ut på ski, alltid blid goes the saying in Norwegian – out on skis, always happy. If you can’t beat the winter, make a hobby out of it. Norwegians love their winter sports and many look forward to the arrival of the first snow as it signifies the end of an often grey and rainy November and the beginning of the winter sports season. Skiing is really a make or break activity in Norway. If you can’t find a way to love it then Norway is always going to be a difficult place to be for five months of the year. If, however, you can’t get enough of snow, ski wax conversations and kvikk lunsj (Kit-Kats, but better) then the winter very quickly becomes something to look forward to.
“Daylight, again renewed/ will rise, all rosy-hued!/ Sankta Lucia! Sankta Lucia!” sing the choir as they process out of the cathedral. We also head outside, where the day has finally broken. The choristers hand out lussekatta – a bright yellow cake made with saffron – and we warm our hands on hot, non-alcoholic gløgg. In my mind it’s confirmed: Scandinavians know how to make the best of the dark days – bring on Christmas.
Alison Boston works on climate change and sustainability issues by day and writes everything from blogs to fiction in her spare time. She's taught the violin in Costa Rica, studied international relations in the UK and Russia, and is currently based in Norway, where she hopes to learn to ski like a local. You can find her on Twitter @ali_boston.
Cover image licensed under Wikimedia Commons.