It’s time to talk about winter in Sweden. A while back I wrote about summer in Sweden, essentially saying that it’s like heaven. And winter? Well, winter can feel like the opposite; or if not quite like hell, then rather like a long, slow slog uphill through waist-deep snow in the dark with clouds covering the moon and no one around to hear you scream. Or maybe that’s just how I feel.
It usually starts to feel like winter in the middle of October (and definitely by the end), and we’re often still wearing our winter coats into early May. I’m from Michigan: snow and cold don’t bother me all that much. Here, though, it’s the darkness that gets you. On December 21, the winter solstice, Stockholm will receive a smidge over six hours of daylight, with the sun rising at 8:44am and setting at 2:48pm. As we live a bit north of Stockholm, our day is even shorter. The sun never strays too far from the horizon, either, so it never quite feels like full daylight; dusk is always just around the corner.
Our first November here, in 2014, we had only about eight hours of sunlight for the entire month! October and November are famed for being difficult months, because there’s generally a lot of rain or snow and it’s almost always grey and cloudy. 2014 was the year Leif was born, and we were living in an apartment in the city that got no natural light from October to April—which is to say that I don’t think I saw a single moment of sunlight that November. And you know what? It’s rougher than it sounds.
At the beginning of that first full winter here, I remember thinking, “Big deal, it’s winter, we’ll just bundle up and go about our lives.” It wasn’t until the following April, when I met a friend at a cafe with our 7-month old babies, that I realized I was depressed. I’d been going about our daily routine, making it through day by day, and hadn’t realized that I had truly entered survival mode: I wasn’t looking for joy or laughter or even anything simply nice about life, I was just looking to get through each day and go to bed each night. But at this cafe, where sunlight streamed in through the windows and my friend had just biked across town to see me and smelled of fresh air, I remembered that there was a world outside our apartment, that the light was coming back, that it was possible to feel good and engaged again.
I’ve talked to many Swedes who feel the same way; even after a lifetime of Swedish winters, each individual winter is still tough, and summer still comes as a revelation. While many folks take advantage of the weather to ski or ice skate (and there’s even a national week-long vacation from school in February called sportlöv, or sport leave, when many families take off to the mountains for a week of winter sporting fun), the ability to do so in our area is weather-dependent. It didn’t snow enough or have the necessary sustained cold temperatures to engage in skiing or skating or even sledding near us more than once or twice the entire season, so we were really stuck indoors. It’s dark as midnight by the time we pick up the kids at 3 or 4, which makes for loooong evenings at home together.
But. Surely you’ve heard of the Danish idea of hygge by now, right? It’s been popular since this book came out. It translates approximately as “coziness”, but it’s more intense than that. I think the equivalent here in Sweden would be to say mysig. And it’s essentially the same across Scandinavia: the idea is to consciously cultivate feeling cozy all winter long (all year long, really), to light lots of candles and have warm blankets and sheepskins throughout the house and to cuddle up with each other and with books holding a warm cup of tea, hot cocoa, or coffee. Invite friends to dinner or fika and to glögg (mulled wine) parties before Christmas. It seems to me also to be a season of turning in—for better or worse.
It often feels like people cultivate this coziness in their private lives while shutting themselves off, almost to the extreme, in their public lives. My experience, especially when we were living right in Stockholm, is that people close themselves off in winter, ostensibly as a survival mechanism to save energy to get through the long, draining winter. While Swedes are never the most outgoing and friendly types, in winter they can be downright mean, pushing you aside while waiting to get on the tunnelbana (subway) or stepping in front of you to get through doors first, obliquely cutting you in line at the grocery store or Ikea.
I remember a friend who had lived in Alaska once telling me that the feeling there, when the long, dark winter came, was that everyone was in it together, getting through the tough months by helping each other and feeling empathy for what everyone is going through. It can feel like the opposite in the Swedish winter: everyone’s got to look after himself. Good night, and good luck—I’ll see you next spring, if you make it through. Of course not everyone, everywhere is like this, but this has generally been my experience (and many Swedes have agreed).
Venturing out can be nice, though, as many restaurants and cafes light inviting candles outside their doors and make their interiors super comfy and cozy. The streets are lined with lights and decorations, especially leading up to Christmas. I for one find it very difficult to resist the temptation for a glass of wine when I’m in the city, the sun is setting, and restaurants are lighting their candles—until I look at my clock and realize it’s only 2:30 in the afternoon!
Even on Sweden’s official tourism site, sweden.se, they don’t try to pretend that winter here isn’t rough. “At the depth of winter in some northern parts of the country above the Arctic Circle, you might get as little as three hours of sunlight per day. So, winters may be rough, but you’ll be rewarded during summer. Long hours of daylight and moderately warm temperatures make Sweden one of the most beautiful places to be in during May to August.” Essentially they’re saying, “Yep, winter sucks, but we’ve got four really nice months on the other side if you make it through!” Which is small consolation in the middle of a freezing, black January. (Meaning that it is, in fact, consolation, to remember and fantasize about how wonderful summer is, but only mildly so.)
As for having kids in winter, that’s a whole extra layer of difficulty. While the winter suits that kids wear here are generally excellent (warm and waterproof), they are a pain to get kids in, especially stubborn two-year-olds. Then there are the hats, mittens, and boots. And the extra later of woolen clothing under regular clothing, or fleece clothing on top of regular clothing. At the moment, we fight Leif *every*single*day* to get dressed for preschool. We are so grateful that they are outside in all weather (except when it’s dangerously cold), and we are even more grateful when we manage to drop them off at school before everyone’s outside (so that the caregivers take over the task of dressing them!). Most people have wonderful cocoons that they put in strollers to make nests for their babies, and you can spend a significant amount of money on them.
It’s worth noting that parents are given free Vitamin D drops to give to their children under 2, and every time we go to the children’s health center in fall, winter, or spring, we’re asked if we’re giving them to the kids.
This winter, though, has been wonderful so far. I think we’ve had more sunny days and more snow than we had the previous three winters combined! We’ve been outside to play in the snow more than we ever have, and I’ve been taking long walks in the early afternoon to soak up the sunlight. Also, since we are staying in Sweden for Christmas, we’ve made an effort to decorate and cozy up the home, which has been super helpful—and hygge.
What’s your favorite part of winter? Your least favorite? Have you ever experienced day-round darkness?
All photos by me.