Winter in the North

A few years ago, I was traveling around Scandiland (that’s what I call Scandinavia) and was interested to find that unlike North America, cold weather didn’t shut the cities down or push life indoors for several months of sequestered living. Instead, our Nordic neighbors embrace the cold weather and dark days in a way that is significantly different from our practices in North America. I’ve often thought about writing a book that features cultural comparisons, but for some reason, I just haven’t.

The notion of cozy, warm, inviting is associated with the Danish concept of hygge. The idea is that hygge (pronounced in a way that North Americans and most other Europeans could never understand but generally in line with HOO-g’ where the end of the word is significantly truncated by turning down the volume of your voice so that it becomes audible only to dogs) warms the dark and cold months and creates a welcoming atmosphere regardless of the miserable conditions outdoors. The Danes take great pride in this notion, perhaps because as a national people, they are among the most aloof and coldest hearted people on earth (and no, I don’t say that lightly or mildly). Like so many things Danish, the Danes are good at exporting and propagating the idea, but short on meaning and actual delivery. Lately, it seems that hygge is everywhere in North America, more as a means to market lap blankets and candles than a cultural phenomenon, and perhaps (given its spurious nature), rightfully so.

Over the years, I have have come to explore this same notion of cosy, warmth in many northern countries—Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, and Estonia. Each country has a slightly different cultural spin on the idea, and from my experience, each does with more authenticity and meaning.

To understand the entire concept, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of weather, because ultimately, weather shapes who and where we wound up settling on this planet. In both the North and South hemisphere, there are four broad climactic zones: polar, temperate, tropic, and equatorial. Most of the North America resides in the temperate and tropic zones. The temperate zone is marked by four distinct seasons, a day/night cycle of light and dark in relatively equal shares over a 24-hour period, and a temperate that peaks just after mid-day and cools overnight. Tropic and equatorial zones are typically warm (or just plain hot) year round, have a much shorter sunrise and sunset cycle and a less hyperbolic shift in temperature between day and night relative to temperate zones. Polar zones, however are different. Rather than an equal share of light and dark over a 24-hour period, light and dark is precisely better charted over a 365-day period. Temperatures in polar zones typically do not cycle in a 24-hour period, but a 36-to-48 hour period. Though it is somewhat more complicated, the extremes relative to time and temperature are simply more extreme at the poles. While residents in the temperate zones can bank on colder nights and some warm relief during the day, our polar residents can’t expect that same regularity. Sometimes the temperature doesn’t warm up for days, and then, only slightly.

A relatively small portion of folks live in these more extreme regions. Simple survival skills have, over the centuries, persisted which bring not only comfort but also joy to those living in the somewhat less hospitable Northern climates. As technology has evolved, the necessity and significance of these practices of cultural survival have mutated and have become cultural constants though the evolutionary necessity of the practices may no longer be as necessary as centuries ago.

As Northern communities evolved, the notion of commune spelled for most the difference between survival and the bitter end. Unforgiving land was frozen for the better part of the year, and under the cover of darkness, food was scarce and difficult to sustain throughout the harsh conditions. Stockpiling and sharing became enmeshed in the culture of Northern communities. So to did the physical act best described as nesting. A short journey to a neighboring village becomes much longer and arduous in extreme conditions. Rest before and after the journey was necessary under warm blankets to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. The presence of light — particularly candlelight — provided a sense of security. Imagine walking 10 miles to a neighboring village in sub zero temperatures only to return, nearly frozen. You snuggle up under a blanket into a deep and cold sleep only to wake 30 hours later in a pitch black room wondering if you are dead or alive. The candle, which could burn for days, was a reassuring beacon that you were still alive in the dark, still, and quiet of the 6-month night.

The somewhat more dire cultural practices have transcended time and now translate into a peculiar but reassuring melange of cultural practices across the North countries and climates. Lap blankets—foreign to most North Americans—are a quaint curiosity at most restaurants, cafes, and homes across the North. Often placed in glass jars to buffet the harsh and persistent winds, candles are seemingly everywhere, indoors and out. The artificial light making up for the absent sun. Warmth is abundant. Soft textiles and surfaces provide a counterbalance to the harsh climactic extremes.

While we can certainly celebrate the notion of nesting, comfort, warmth, and light, it is easy to take for granted in our have-it-all society. We should, while relishing these comforts, keep in mind a reverence of its life-giving (and life-saving) presence in the lives of the ancestors that preceded us for many centuries.