STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - On Wednesday, girls across Sweden took part in an age-old celebration of light. They donned white robes tied with red sashes, settled crowns of candles on their heads, and served their families coffee.
Meanwhile, at a white-walled, white-floored cafe in a trendy Stockholm neighborhood, two dozen white-clad Swedes started the day with a more 21st century method of banishing the winter dark — basking in scientifically simulated daylight.
Light is a preoccupation in this Nordic nation, and in the rest of Scandinavia; and for good reason.
In the north, polar night reigns for much of December. And even in Sweden’s south, with up to seven official hours of daylight on the shortest day of the year, the sun is often masked by low clouds and never pushes far past the horizon.
Swedes equip themselves for the dark. Dog leashes, baby carriages and horse blankets glow with reflectors or florescent tape and fabric. Restaurants burn small fires outside.
The Lucia Day light festival once appropriately took place on the year’s darkest day. According to Folklore expert Bengt af Klintberg, its date is a vestige of the discarded Julian calendar, which set the Winter Solstice on December 13. When Sweden moved to the Gregorian calendar, December 13 stuck.
During the celebration, each Swedish town and school chooses a long-haired girl to wear the candlelit crown of Santa Lucia, patron saint of the blind. Lucia is from the Italian for light.
Klintberg said the tradition began in the west in the 18th century and spread throughout Sweden.
“Swedes are very fond of lighting candles in the winter ... because it creates such a fine atmosphere. When you have darkness outside and lights burning on the table, it makes winter cozier than it would be otherwise,” he said.
Klintberg said that while the onset of electricity allowed easy illumination in the dark months, electric light did not offer the comfort of candles, or what he called “living light”.
“Around the mid-20th century, there was an explosion of traditions that have to do with old-time light,” he said.
The modern era offers comforts for real sufferers, though.
Arne Lowden, sleep researcher at the National Institute for Psychosocial Medicine in Stockholm, said 11 percent of Swedes have some form of winter depression, and 8 percent full-blown Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The best SAD treatment is light therapy, which doctors can prescribe with special lamps in the home or at clinical centers.
In Martin Sylwan’s Iglo Ljuscafe (light cafe) by Stockholm Harbour in Sodermalm, guests who need no prescription sip vitamin-packed juices as they soak in simulated daylight.
Before entering the light room, they remove their shoes and slip on cotton robes as white as everything else in the room, from the slipcovered chairs to the long curtains that keep the dark from peeking through the windows.
The effect is like something out of a science fiction movie — Stanley Kubrik’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, maybe, or Woody Allen’s “Sleeper”.
This is the third season running the cafe for Sylwan, who discovered light therapy at a hospital about 10 years ago when he was in the grip of a winter depression.
“I actually only went there twice. I didn’t feel like going to a hospital. I didn’t like to be a patient. Because you are also in the psychiatric ward,” Sylwan said.
“For me, light is a ubiquitous thing. Not something you should have to go to hospital for.”
It was the first cafe visit for a group of staff from the School of Joriel, a Stockholm school for disabled children, and they said the light felt good.
“I think the darkness is very hard,” Maria Johansson, one of the team, said. “It feels as if you lie dormant.”