One question that Norwegians always ask me is: ‘How do you like the darkness?’ I always say: ‘I love it!’ They are often very surprised.
It is typical for foreigners to be nervous about facing the dark winters in Norway. If you live above the Arctic Circle there is a period of time when the sun doesn’t make it over the horizon. When the sun doesn’t appear for 24 hours it is called a Polar Night. The higher you go above the Arctic Circle, the more Polar Nights there are. Tromsø, where I live, is 350 kilometres (217 miles) above the Arctic Circle and has 60 Polar Nights in a row.
So how can you survive 60 days without the sun? It’s easy: When in Norway, do as the Norwegians do! Below I will share with you some of the Norwegian secrets in surviving the long dark winters.
One very important element of how Norwegians survive the darkness is their awareness of Winter SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). SAD is a Winter depression that effects especially those living in the Nordic countries. Winter depression was actually discovered in the 6th century by the gothic scholar Jordanes from his study of Scandza (Scandinavia).
Winter SAD is caused by a biochemical imbalance because of lack of sunlight. The main symptoms are tiredness and oversleeping, fatigue, a craving for sugary foods, feelings of sadness, guilt and a loss of self-esteem, irritability, and avoiding social and physical contact. Norwegians are taught about this disorder in daily life, from family, in schools and by the government through TV campaigns. Awareness is key but the best remedy is that Norwegians have made preventing Winter SAD a way of life.
Preparing for Winter
Cod Liver Oil
It is a well known fact that Cod Liver Oil helps your body to soak up the goodness of the sunlight. Cod liver oil has a lot of good omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A and vitamin D. Even though Norwegians eat a lot of fish products, it is normal for children and adults to have a spoonful of cod liver oil every day of the year. This is one of the things that child health centres teach new mothers. At your one-year-old’s check up with the Jordmor (midwife) information is given about the value of cod liver oil to growing bodies. (We were even given a large bottle of oil to take home.)
Soaking up Summer
Living in Norway makes you value the Summers so much more – not a moment is wasted. Norwegians participate in many outdoor sports and activities. Days are spent trekking in the mountains, boating, bike riding, and sunbathing. The idea is to store up as much happy sunshine to last you until next Spring. And there is certainly a lot of sunshine to be had. Tromsø may have 60 Polar Nights, but we also have 60 Polar Days – that’s 60 days of eternal sunshine! Even at midnight there are people enjoying the sun, having BBQs on the beach, playing volleyball in the sand, going to outdoor concerts and celebrating the Midnight Sun.
Surviving the Winter
Norwegians are very good at exercising. During the winter it is especially good to exercise so your body can get that activity-high of moving around and warming up your body. Norwegians utilise the snow for exercise activities such as skiing, snow boarding etc., but they also go to the gym. However, Norwegians also know that just getting outside and going for a walk can be just as good. Walking through the snow, lifting your knees up to tread over snowy mounds, using your muscles for balance on the ice and just basically getting around outside in the winter is very hard work but great exercise.
During Winter the air is particularly fresh. It is important to get out of the house every day into the fresh winter air. The house is kept closed during winter, the windows are kept shut and the heaters run continuously. This atmosphere can make you tired and sluggish. Getting out in the fresh air will rejuvenate you and make your body feel happy. Parents always take their children outside – even babies are taken for a walk outside in their prams. It is common practise for Norwegians to wrap their baby up nice and snug and put them in the pram outside on the veranda for a revitalising sleep. The fresh air makes the baby sleep better and for longer.
Don’t Stop Activity
One very important aspect of surviving the darknes is to keep doing your activities. When the darkness and snow comes, life still goes on! It is very easy to decide to stay in because it is snowing outside or it is dark. Making the effort to go out – putting on your snow gear, walking to the bus stop, riding the bus, going to the movies, the cafe, the library, then home again and un-suiting is worth it! (Besides, all indoors, even the busses, are heated.) Hat hair, wet behinds from slipping in the snow, mud on your boots, red noses, cold hand shakes, snow in your jacket are all accepted here. No need to apologise, its just a part of life in Norway. The winter doesn’t even stop outside play for school children. Even kindergarten kids are suited up everyday for an outside play. Their special jump-suits keep them nice and toasty. When it is time to go back inside just a shimmy-shake will get off the snow. (If the kids are dirty then they are hosed off!)
I suppose this is a given but attitude is really important in dealing with the darkness. The people who say ‘I can’t live without the sun’ are completely right – they can’t. But the people who see it as an adventure are the ones who have a wonderful time during the darkness. Norwegians really enjoy the dark season. It is a time of celebration with Advent, Santa Parades, St Lucia Day, Christmas, Julebukk, New Years, and the end of Christmas party. And without darkness you can not see the Northern Lights. You can read more about Norwegian attitude to the darkness in the post The Great Slumber.
Don’t Be Scared
Growing up we are taught to be scared of the dark – you never know when the boogie monster might get you! However, in Norway, darkness is just a way of life. People in warmer countries think that when it is dark you have to stay indoors but this is impractical when you only have an hour of light each day. Darkness in Norway is also playtime, just the same as if it was light. After school, it is dark but the kids play in the snow. They go sledding, build snowmen and have snowball fights in their front yards, down the street and in the parks. Kids also walk to school in the darkness and walk home in the darkness. Reflectors are very important during the Polar Nights. You can read more about using reflectors in the post Everyone Reflects for the Winter.
Solariums and Artificial Light
Some Norwegians like to get their fix of light at Solarium centres. However, because of the health risks this is becoming less popular.
Bright light lamps or light boxes that provide intense illumination (much more than normal house lights) are sometimes used. The light is usually white ‘full spectrum’, although you can also use blue light which is the light colour of the sun. These lights might be good for making your body happy but I think its a good idea to keep the light behind you, otherwise it can hurt your eyes after long exposure.
Seeing the Light
Even though it is dark from November to February (give or take) the season is still filled with light.
There is Still Sunlight
Even though the sun doesn’t rise over the horizon there is still sunlight! Depending how high you are above the Arctic Circle, near noon-time for an hour or so the light of the sun peeks over the horizon, lighting up the white landscape. This is the best time to have a walk to enjoy the ‘blue light‘.
The Lightness of Nature
The snow is very reflective. Just having a little bit of light will have a lot of effect in the snow. This is because the snow is uneven and therefore bounces the light everywhere and the little icicles in the snow sparkle. White is the greatest reflective colour because it is the full spectrum – all the colours together. Melted snow (ice) also has a shiny glaze that reflects. So even though it is dark, the white snowy landscape lightens up the place. The side of the full moon is very bright in the northern sky which also reflects on the snow and the water. And, of course, if you look up you also have the Northern Lights.
Norwegians love fire. Any chance they get they will light up a candle. It is normal to see many candles on tables and windowsills. Welcome Candles are small dishes that nestle in the snow by front doors to greet visitors. Shops also use these candles to welcome customers in from the cold as well as open fire torches. The fireplace is the centre of the home and Norwegians have the fire going every night in winter. (It is a great way to preserve energy.) Even though the sun can’t be seen, a fire always warms the soul.
The lights in the city, suburb streets and even the snow tracks are always on during the dark season. The lights give off a low glow rather than stark whiteness and adds to the beauty of winter. Also in the city the Christmas lights are lit at the beginning of the dark season, right before Advent, and stay on until mid-January.
By law all buildings and houses need outside lights for safety. During the Christmas season, which lasts til the 13th of January, Christmas lights decorate houses and front garden Christmas trees. So, even the streets are very festive and beautiful in Norway.
Window lamps are in every house. In the dark season Norwegians place hanging lamps in the windows to mimic the sun. Tee Lights are very common as well as a variety of candles around the house. At Christmas you’ll find the traditional 5 or 7 stick candelabra in many windows or a lighted star.