As I write this the sun is about to set, plunging us into the longest night of the year. It feels like we’re been plunged into darkness more so this year without the distraction of holiday parties, concerts and the typical bustle of the holiday season.
While my city neighborhood has made heroic efforts to give people some distraction with beautiful and artistic window displays, the lines and hand sanitizer outside the stores is a quick reminder of the state the world is in at the moment.
There is so much out of our control that more and more I’ve focused on the few things I can control and it mostly revolves around my life at home. Facing a long winter with little to do seemed daunting to me and I began to think about ways to nurture wellbeing. Obviously, the reason for this weekly newsletter is how creativity can contribute to our wellbeing in a particular trying time with the global pandemic. So I’ve been very focused on that.
Still, the winter months add a layer of challenges that could be trying for many. I’ve been thinking about how many cultures have thrived for generations in cold climates and how they prioritize wellbeing. The Danes have their hygge, and the Swedes their lagom and fika. I was so intrigued about what we could glean from the Scandanavian cultures, I asked my good friend Ulrika Mattson, who grew up in Sweden to enlighten me.
Ulrika is now a thriving entrepreneur-she and her sister founded Anass House - a company focused on environmentally friendly products and Scandinavian designs. Anass House also offers a quarterly subscription box that includes smart, planet friendly kitchen products and other household gear with a Scandinavian design element.
Sit back and enjoy my conversation with Ulrika and perhaps you can come away with some nuggets to shore up your wellbeing during these winter months.
But first a small sampling of focused content:
As a little bonus, here are some beautiful images of wintry scenes from beautiful Sweden.
Can you tell me about the Swedish version of wellbeing?
I think the answer to that question is very multifaceted. For starters, Swedes (and perhaps Europeans in general) tend to have a different approach to life. More of a "work to live" as opposed to "live to work" approach. It sounds simple but when you don't put all your focus on your work, day in and day out, you have more time and energy to put into the community and your family.
For example, I read somewhere that only 1% of Swedish employees work more than 50 hours per week. We have a maternity leave of I believe 480 paid days. For gender equality purposes, 90 of those days can only be used by the father. Sweden also has a long-rooted strong welfare system such as free healthcare, free schools (including medical school and law school) and backups for families in need. I believe all of these things contributed to wellbeing. There is a sense of "being taken cared off." One thing that the pandemic has taught me is how important it is to interact with other people. I think having the feeling that you are really part of a community is important for wellbeing.
What is the most common aspect of this sense of wellbeing for winter days?
The months leading up to Christmas are filled with preparations for the holiday. We celebrate advent each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. The celebrations include lots of candle lights and eating Swedish home-baked Christmas cookies such as lussekatter) gingerbreads and other cookies.
Above: Some of Ulrika’s winter baking
We also celebrate Lucia on December 13th. She is the "bearer of lights" and young children walk with lights in their hair and hands and white gowns singing Christmas songs. Again, because of the darkness that comes with winter in Sweden, especially the northern parts of Sweden, lights and candle lights are very important and part of almost every celebration during the winter months. More importantly, all of the celebrations include friends and families and many of them are celebrated with the community. For example, I would say that almost every daycare and elementary school has some kind of Lucia celebration.
January and February are difficult though. The days start getting longer but very slowly. We have a winter break in February and when I grew up, everyone I knew went skiing for a week. It's a great sport during winter because you are outside during the hours of the day with sunlight.
Are there foods that accompany this sense of well being?
Well, when I was a kid, we had a lot of homecooked meals. Swedes eat a lot of fish and shellfish all year around so . Salmon in all possible variations - oven-baked, raw, pickled or smoked. The months leading up to Christmas are filled with cookies and baked goods and on Christmas, which we celebrate on the 24th, we eat pickled fish, oven baked ham, meatballs, salmon of different kinds, cheeses and vortbread - a special dark Christmas bread that I have been trying to make for years here in the U.S. with little success. It's a big celebration and in the evening, everyone opens their gifts.
When did your family have to hunker down for the cold weather in Sweden? Did it begin typically in Nov? Dec? And when does spring reliably come to Sweden?
I come from Gothenburg, which is in the southern part of the country. It started getting really dark in November. December and January are the darkest months. When I was a kid, the snow would light up the darkness but these days we don't really get much snow anymore. Global warming? The northern part of Sweden is much darker. In some parts you get almost no sunlight during the darkest months which is hard.. Spring starts somewhere at the end of March, April.
What types of indoor activities did your family do when you were growing up that was part of this wellbeing? What were your favorites?
Actually, we played a lot outside during the days when it was light outside. There is this saying that "there is no bad weather, just bad clothes." So if it rains, you put on your rain gear and if it snows, you do your snow gear. A lot of snow fort building, sledding and skiing. When indoors, we did a lot of board games.
Did your family do anything special to brighten the dark, short days?
Candlelights and spend as much time as possible outside when the sun is up. But when I was a teenager and went to high school, I left for school in the dark and got back home in the dark. That was hard.
What are some of the Christmas/holiday activities + traditions your family did when you were a child?
As I said above, the holiday celebration starts early in Sweden. The advent celebrations and Lucia leading up to Christmas. As a kid, it was so much anticipation during November and December - darkness didn't matter. We also went on skiing trips which I loved. As a kid, there were also always a lot of house parties with the neighbors - I was fortunate because many of our very close neighbors had children around the same age as me and my sister so that was always fun.
Which of these have you incorporated into your family traditions with your children?
For Lucia on the 13th we usually watch the big Lucia celebration on Swedish TV - lights and singing. It's beautiful. We try to make most of the Christmas candy and bake a lot. On Christmas eve, we make all the Swedish foods and have a big celebration. We have been trying to keep up the skiing here in the U.S. and we have taught our three kids how to ski. We usually try to get one trip in per year here. To me, skiing is winter and it always makes me happy and gives me a deep sense of calmness.
As someone who has weathered many cold and dark winters, what would you advise those of us facing lots of indoor time in the next few months?
Candles, fireplace and board games. Everyone in my family read a lot of books, especially during the dark months. But I also think it's important to take advantage of the little light there is outside. If there is snow, we go sledding. If not, I try to take walks in the forest and around the neighborhood. It's easier now that we have a dog - we are forced to get outside.
Wishing all who celebrate a very Merry Christmas this week! Enjoy!
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