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Got Light? The importance of sunlight while living in the Nordics

Updated 29 Jun 2010

The first time I saw someone standing frozen on a corner in downtown Oslo with her face turned up into the sun, I found it odd. She was blissfully staring into the sunlight as if waiting for the mothership to take her home. It was September and still warm, but winter was creeping up.

Two years later, I am the one standing on the street corner, craning my neck to worship the sun god’s first rays after an unbearably long and dark winter.

The sunny side of life

As an expat moving to a Scandinavian (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) country or a Nordic (Scandinavia, Finland and associated territories) country, choosing your date of arrival is key and should be a deliberate choice. Most have heard about the long, cold winters and the midnight sun.

While foreigners debate whether it’s better to come in winter, thinking it can only get better, or to move in spring or summer, hoping to avoid the cold and darkness for as long as possible, the best time for an introduction to the region is when there’s optimal light.

An expat arriving in Oslo, Helsinki or Stockholm in the spring or summer will be delighted by the open, social natives; charmed by the outdoor lifestyle; and enthralled by the crowded cafés, boats on the fjord, and hikers on the forest trails.

This kind of atmosphere lasts as long as the sun is around, and has nothing to do with the temperature.

This spring I went for a morning walk on a sunny March day when the temperature was just above freezing. Around the corner at the bakery several people were sitting outside, bundled into their winter coats, eating ice cream, as if in defiance. To them, sunshine meant that spring had arrived.

A tale of two seasons

It would be a struggle to say Scandinavia and the Nordic countries have four distinct seasons; it would be more apt to describe the regions as having two distinct moods: dark and light. The summer/winter dichotomy has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde feeling to it.

In the winter, people are generally quiet and introverted. They keep to themselves and stay inside unless trying to get somewhere or participate in winter sports.

But in the summer, people suddenly wake up as if out of hibernation, and their energy is palpable. Gazes move away from the ground and shift upward toward the sun and to others. You hear more laughter, see more smiles and social life explodes. Friends and colleagues are constantly organising picnics and parties or championing sailing and hiking expeditions.

Summer is also a time of celebration for Scandinavians and others living in the Nordics. Though each country’s traditions are different, there is no escaping the joy leading up to the longest, lightest day of the year. From 17 May in Norway to Midsummer (26 June in 2010) in all the Scandinavian countries people find reasons to be together outside. Summer and its long, light days are cherished in ways that someone who hasn’t lived far north can comprehend.

Sunny days make for sleepless nights

Unlike countries close to the equator where days and nights are split almost evenly into 12 hour periods, in Scandinavia and the Nordic countries, the amount of sunlight increases daily from the winter solstice in December until Midsummer, in late June. Depending on where you are in the region on Midsummer’s Eve, you will have between 20 and 24 hours of daylight.

In the southern capitals of Oslo, Helsinki and Stockholm, there is less light. But in the Arctic Circle and above it the sun moves across the horizon without ever setting. It is a sight to behold, attracting thousands of tourists every year.

The shift in sunlight happens slowly and inconspicuously, but the effect is still dramatic. In the summer months, light suppresses the body’s melatonin release, which makes it harder to fall asleep. Your brain is tricked into thinking that it should be awake. You have an unusual amount of energy and eye masks can be a necessity from May until August to ensure a full night’s sleep.

Squirrelling away the sunlight

Living up north, you can’t avoid becoming a sun worshipper. You find yourself seeking out patches of sun along sidewalks and in parks, avoiding shadows, and often walking out of your way or crossing the street just to get a few extra rays of sunlight.

Scandinavians and Nords squeeze out every last drop of sun in order to survive the colder months. There is a humorous saying that you know you are Norwegian if you feel guilty when you are inside when it’s sunny outside. If there is a spot of sun, it is filled with a Scandinavian.

Parks fill up with groups of friends having BBQs, the fjords and lakes fill with boats and the forests and mountains are overrun with hikers and campers.

Alas, the sun-filled seasons go by quickly and before you know it, you will be looking for your own patch of sun to stand in and longing for March to roll around again.

I came to Oslo almost three years ago to join my Norwegian husband and every winter I think I won’t make it through another. But then the sun returns in the spring and summer comes with all its natural beauty, warmth, entertainment and activities, and I see the world in a different light.

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