Mastermind Magazine, Issue 06 : White nights, dark days

Every year on the evening of April 30, halfway between the spring equinox and midsummer, huge bonfires light up the skies in Sweden as people flock to celebrate Walpurgis, a tradition dating back to medieval times. While the festival marks the arrival of spring, you wouldn’t necessarily know it by the way celebrants are dressed. They huddle in front of the flames in coats, gloves and woolly hats. At this time of year, temperatures tend to be low in Sweden, around 50 

degrees Fahrenheit, yet the deep blue of the evening sky sig- nals that summer’s long, bright days are fast approaching. They’ll keep getting longer until Midsummer’s Eve – the crescendo of the Nordic white nights, when, in some parts of Sweden, the sun doesn’t set at all. 

As summer beckons, Swedes also ready their homes to reduce disruptions to their circadian rhythm and everyday life. Without blinds, for instance, it can be difficult to watch television: bright sunlight shines through living-room win- dows late into the evening. And without blackout curtains, a good night’s sleep can be elusive on days when the sun barely sets. Swedes hardly need to use artificial lighting at all in the summer, apart from late at night. At the height of summer, days can last up to 18 hours; in the depths of win- ter, just six. The farther north you travel, the greater these stretches of light and darkness become. 

“Most people need about half an hour to an hour’s worth of daylight every day to maintain good health,” says Arne Lowden, an associate professor at Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute who specializes in light and sleep research. Daylight deprivation could constitute a public health crisis, Lowden says. He cites studies showing that the dark months correlate with a general increase in sleep deprivation and depression in Sweden. “People tend to feel tired and low during the autumn and winter,” he points out. “The darkness affects the mood and the national psyche, one can say. But luckily, most of us can cope since we do get some daylight in the winter, too, after all. Swedes are also pretty good at spending time outdoors.”

So, when the cold and darkness push Swedes indoors, how do they brighten their days? To what extent can people in this part of the world use artificial light to compensate for the darkness? Given that sunlight is a scarce resource in the Nordic region for most of the year, surely Sweden’s indoor lighting is far advanced?

Surprisingly, this is not the case, according to Lowden. “We’re pretty lousy at it,” he says. “Generally, the lamps we use have little positive biological impact.” Using the Kelvin scale, which measures a light’s color temperature, Swedish office lights are generally 3,000 Kelvin, but should be 4,500 Kelvin to resemble daylight, Lowden says. “The same goes for the lighting in our homes, where my advice is to use dimmers so that the light can transition from bluish during the day to more yellow in the evening, to simulate the sun.” 

Despite the international popularity of Scandinavian design, including interior lighting, Lowden is disparaging about the quality of his country’s lamps, particularly in work environments. A new study he conducted on behalf of the Swedish Work Environment Authority – a government agen- cy – found that lights with orange tones dominate in both offices and homes, although those with blue wavelengths affect people more positively. That said, artificial light is generally a poor replacement for real sunlight, Lowden says. 

Nevertheless, there have been huge advances in lighting since the early 20th century, when electricity and incandes- cent light bulbs first illuminated Swedish households. “This affected everyday life in several respects,” said Jan Garnert, an ethnologist and historian of technology, in an interview for a catalogue accompanying the 2019 exhibition “Nordic Light” at Stockholm’s Nordic Museum. Before the introduc- tion of incandescent light bulbs, dim evening lights created social distance between people, Garnert explained. They were forced to stop working or carrying out chores at dusk, leaving them with few productive hours. “Suddenly, one light source could brighten up an entire room,” he said. “This was, of course, a near-magic experience.” 

Today, people are increasingly aware of how light affects their well-being and behavior, according to Garnert. To some outsiders, however, Swedish strategies for coping with the darkness can seem bewildering. During autumn and winter, as darkness falls, Swedes often dim their electrical bulbs and light lots of candles. According to some estimates, Sweden – population 10 million – consumes 18,000 tons of candles and buys 300 million tea lights annually. The result is a warm domestic glow, but the subdued lighting can perplex visitors. Recently, a family friend in Istanbul reflected on a winter visit to Stockholm more than a decade ago. Her strongest memory of that brief stay, she says, was not just the darkness outside, but also the dimmed lights and fluttering candles in homes and restaurants. “It was spooky,” she says, shrugging. “Candles everywhere in the windows. I didn’t like it.” 

Similarly, this past winter, a relative visiting Stockholm from Israel found himself switching on the lights wherever he went. “Why is it so dark in everyone’s homes?” he asks incredulously. “You can’t see properly. It’s pretty annoying.” His instinct, as he stepped indoors from the November gloom, was to light as many lamps as possible, but he found his Swedish hosts had deliberately dimmed them or didn’t own lamps strong enough to brighten a room. Instead, they would switch on a few small lamps and complement them with candles and tea lights. This style of lighting is often described as mysigt, which roughly translates as “cozy.” 

During the winter season, candles are central to Swe- dish holidays. Take St. Lucia’s Day, celebrated in the early morning hours of December 13 with a candlelit procession. During Advent, people place candleholders on windowsills and light the candles every Sunday in the month leading up to Christmas. Swedes decorate their Christmas trees with candles, though they tend to be electric these days. Star- shaped lanterns and light strands illuminate most windows throughout the season. 

Why do Swedes dim their lamps and opt for candles and subdued, atmospheric lighting rather than bold, bright 

lights? “It could be a strategy to master the dark season,” Lowden says. “Creating this kind of mysig atmosphere can make people feel good. It can help generate a feeling of to- getherness – and that, of course, has social benefits. After all, sunshine isn’t the only thing that we’re dependent on to keep up good spirits. So, this can be a way of compensating for the negative impact on our well-being that the lack of daylight can have.” 

Lowden says this isn’t the best tactic, however. Instead, he recommends that people start their day by taking in natural light, in any way they can. 

In his book on the cultural history of light and lighting, Ut ur Mörkret (Out of the Darkness), Garnert writes that he be- lieves in a bright future for lighting development in Sweden. He points to emerging technologies such as LED and the burgeoning fields of light design and environmental psy- chology, which include research into how different types of light – including energy-efficient lamps – affect our psyche. 

While Garnert asserts that “never before have the future prospects of lighting been bigger than now, in the 2010s,” he also writes that, in Swedish homes, plain old candles are becoming more popular. This suggests that, for Swedes, winter gloom is best held at bay with the help of a warm glow rather than dazzling light.