Jultid! (Hint: not exactly Christmas)


Full moon rising, 15:27, 16 November 2013, Stockholm Djurgården

A few weeks ago, I saw folks stringing up lights around town — on a few businesses, apartment balconies, and so on. It’s been getting dark here in Stockholm. These lights are a beacon and a shield against the coming winter darkness.

We lose about 5 minutes of daylight every day, and most of my friends and family from more southerly climes are impressed to hear that by winter solstice, we will have just over six hours of daylight, from sunup at 8:43 to sundown at 2:48 in the afternoon. (The website timeanddate.com says 6 hours, 4 minutes and 48 seconds of light, on December 21.)

We can feel it already, the change in the light. At 3 pm, when it’s darkening, I start yawning. I’m suddenly so tired. A few hours later, I perk up and get going again if I’m at work. But when I look at the clock sometime after supper, I am genuinely surprised that it’s only 8 pm, and I feel ready to go to bed!

I generally have a good sense of what time it is. But the shift in sunlight here in the north has me completely out of whack. Not merely jetlag or the switch from daylight savings, it feels like something much more fundamental than that, something more like: hey, dummy, it’s time to hibernate.

Which is why Swedes break out the lights this time of year. It’s not just that Christmas is coming, which it is, but it’s Jultid. It’s time for belly-warming foods, spiced wine, and lots and lots and LOTS of lights. The grocery store across the way has stacks of candles taller than I am standing sentinel at the entrance, from stocky cylinders to tiny tea lights. Those appeared a few weeks ago, long before any Christmas or Jul-related items were stocked somewhere else in the store.

We finally dug out our strings of nondenominational white lights to put up under our livingroom window for a bit of extra glow. Matt and I are generally traveling around this time of year for work, so this November is a wee bit different for us — it’s the first time since we’ve been here in Stockholm for the entire month since the year that we moved here. I barely remember anything about Christmas that, though a quick run through my blog posts highlights a Julmarket in Hotorget and shopping for recycled gifts at the Myrorna. I recall a disappointing visit to the tiny Julmarkt in the main square on Gamla Stan one December; I think we arrived too late and all the stalls were closed.

Artificial tree: It's been "growing" branches ever so slowly, from the top down. The workers strap themselves in like tree doctors or lumberjacks and add each in a spiral heading down to the bottom. It's taken nearly two weeks to get this far...

Artificial tree: It’s been “growing” branches ever so slowly, from the top down. The workers strap themselves in like tree doctors or lumberjacks and add each in a spiral heading down to the bottom. It’s taken nearly two weeks to get this far…

This year, when I saw the cityworkers hanging lights on the streetlamps on the bridge onto Gamla Stan a few weeks ago, I felt a weird thrill of recognition that this happens usually a day or two before Matt and I leave for a few weeks. But I have yet to see these lamps lit.  Giant pine trees, real and fake, have been erected in the squares around town — but they have yet to be decorated or lit up with lights. Folks are holding off here, I assume until the Advent calendar starts clicking down (and oh man, there sure are a lot of calendars for sale!).

That’s pretty different than the American Way, as I was reminded by a friend’s comment on Facebook today (“…and it’s not even Thanksgiving yet!” she wrote, in response to the over-the-top decorations popping up in her neighborhood in a large city in the American West). It’s no secret that I do not like Christmas, and part of that dislike is the creeping capture of the rest of the calendar, the quiet subordination of fall and other festivities to the capitalistic overtones and gluttony of Christmas in the US.  There might be other reasons too, I suppose, but I try to keep quiet about it — particularly when I am thoroughly enjoying the gatherings with Matt’s family at this time of year.

Basement corner in the Åhlens department store near our house. (There were a few more Jul-themed things in the pillows section... can't explain the old-timey designs for cases and throws.)

Basement corner in the Åhlens department store near our house. (There were a few more Jul-themed things in the pillows section… can’t explain the old-timey designs for cases and throws.)

But today — oi — I got the same sick feeling I might get overwhelmed by while in a store or a mall that I might have visited in the US.  We had moseyed downtown to pick up some necessities, and I felt pretty confident that Jultid would not be a problem for me.  It was fairly subdued, for example, in the department store Åhlens, limited to a few sale signs upstairs and the Advent boxes on sale from the Body Shop in the cosmetics section; even the tidy corner next to the escalators in the basement that we passed on our way to the kitchenware was not bothersome.

But I ended up feeling horribly trapped inside the equivalent of a big box store while Bruce Springsteen was shouting about Santa Claus, at top volume, and Matt and I were searching for some electronics. The Christmas music, sung in American English, sounded off key and melodramatic. The woman who helped me at one of the counters sounded inordinately grateful when I mentioned how crazy it was — she seemed to have been suffering through it, most likely again and again as the soundtrack repeated itself all day.

How mortifying. It’s sort of a new thing here in town: American-style Christmas is seeping in at the edges here in Stockholm. Just like Halloween catches on a bit more every year. Just like Easter eggs do too (Swedes have Easter witches and bonfires, not dyed eggs so much). Interesting how the opportunity to make a buck advances some cultural practices into new frontiers.

Gnomes! Or Tomterna (plural). Tomte!

Gnomes! Or Tomterna (plural). Tomte!

But I get the feeling that the Jultid/Christmas gnomes are not a big deal in the US… yet!
[[The soundtrack for this blog post:

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