‘How do you like the darkness?’ is a question Norwegians like to ask me. I always reply: ‘I love it!’ They are often very surprised.
Because Norway is positioned high in the Northern Hemisphere, it naturally has shorter and darker days during the winter. During the dark season in Oslo, the daylight length is about eight hours but practically, the ‘working’ light is from 10AM to 3PM, dramatically making the day feel shorter. Above the Arctic Circle, there are Polar Nights – when the sun does not make it over the horizon for 24 hours. The higher you go above the Arctic Circle, the more Polar Nights there are. Tromsø, where I once lived, is 350 kilometres (217 miles) above the Arctic Circle and has 60 Polar Nights in a row.
The dark season has always been a concern for foreigners, especially those from sun countries. They ask me, ‘How can you survive 60 days without the sun?’ ‘It’s easy,’ I reply, ‘when in Norway, do as the Norwegians do!’
Below I share some of the Norwegian secrets in surviving the long, dark winters:
Being Aware of SAD
One very important element of how Norwegians survive the darkness is their awareness of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). SAD is a winter depression that especially effects those living in the Nordic countries. Winter depression was discovered in the 6th century by the Gothic scholar Jordanes from his study of Scandza (Scandinavia).
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 SAD a way of life.
Preparing for Winter
Surviving the winter is a consistent process. You need to prepare the body and mind by maintaining good routines and habits all year round.
Cod Liver Oil
It is a well known that cod liver oil helps your body to soak up the goodness of the sunlight. Cod liver oil has 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. Pregnant mothers are encouraged to take cod liver oil for their baby’s brain development. At a one-year-old’s check up with the midwife, information is given about the value of cod liver oil to growing bodies. Cod liver oil is usually drunk from the bottle with a spoon or taken as oil capsules. Jellies are also available fo children.
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 in Norway during summer. Tromsø, they may have 60 Polar Nights, but they also have 60 Polar Days–that’s 60 days of eternal sunshine! So, 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.
Managing your sleep is very important in Norway, especially in the north where the days constantly change through out the year. Getting enough sleep and going to bed at a regular time every night is good for your health. It is easier to have a regular sleep pattern by the sun during autumn and spring in Norway, but during the dark and light seasons, it is good to have reminders to go to bed rather than relying on how your body feels. You can’t rely on the light or darkness, or your body, to know when it’s time to go to bed. So, sticking to a regular sleep routine will help you manage to survive the darkness.
Surviving the Winter
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 Christmas tree burning parties. 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.
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 make good use of the snow for exercise activities such as skiing, snow boarding, fatbiking, 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, and babies are taken for a walk outside in their prams in the Arctic. 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. You can often see a line-up of prams with babies snoozing outside a coffee shop in the city.
Don’t Stop Activity
To survive the darkness, it is important 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, it’s just a part of life in Norway. The winter certainly doesn’t stop outside play for school children. Even kindergarten kids are suited up everyday for an outside play for a few hours. 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!)
*But remember, reflectors are very important during the darkness – they are important for safety all-round, but especially near roads and traffic! You can read more about using reflectors in the post Everyone Reflects for the Winter.
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 daily life. People from warmer countries think that when it is dark in Norway you have to stay indoors, but this is impractical when you only have an hour of light each day. Darkness in Norway means 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. So, don’t be scared of the Norwegian darkness. Learn to love the peace and quiet, the lights and the outdoor activities to survive the dark season.
Living with Light
Even though it is dark from November to February (give or take) the season is still filled with light.
There is Still Sunlight
In Southern Norway, the working daylight usually lasts about five hours during high winter. The light is low and weak, but still strong enough to get your fix. But, it is important to put in the effort to make the most of it.
In the Arctic, even though the sun doesn’t rise over the horizon, there is still light! Norway is not pitch black without the sun. Depending on how high you are above the Arctic Circle, near noon-time for about an hour or so, the light of the sun peeks over the horizon, lighting up the snowy landscape. This is the best time to have a walk to enjoy the ‘blue light‘.
The Lightness of Nature
There is light all around thanks to snow! Just a little bit of light will have a big effect on the snow. White is the greatest reflective colour because it is the full spectrum–all the colours together–so snow bounces light, which makes the whole landscape bright. Even though the sun does not rise in the Arctic winter, the moon is very bright in the northern sky, which also reflects on the snow. And, of course, if you look up, you have the Northern Lights brightening the sky.
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 daylight lamps or light boxes that provide intense illumination (much more than normal house lights) are sometimes used as ‘treatment’ for the blues. The light is usually white full spectrum, although you can also use blue light, which is the light colour of the sun. Just sitting in front of these lights for 15 minutes a day can noticeably make your mood and your body happier. I have used therapy lamps for many years to help sustain my energy during the dark season. In the north where there is no daylight during winter, the lamps helped a great deal, but I am also finding that using the lamp in Oslo to supplement the low daylight helps me feel more energised. However, I have leant that the time of day is important for usage – I usually use my lamp in the early afternoon, not to take over the natural daylight but to extend the daylight experience a little longer.
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 many Norwegians have the fire going every night in winter. 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. Most lamps only give off 40w but collectively they illuminate the house perfectly. 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.