White lights of Swedish Christmas

We moved to Sweden in the summer and as our first winter approached my best friend, an American living in Ireland part time, took to calling us weekly inquiring as to our mental health.  This played out in a predictable weekly dialogue.
“Hi, how ya doing? Did you get the bulbs?” “No” “Are you depressed yet?” “No, I don’t think so.” Then I would call out to my wife in the other room asking “Honey are you depressed?” She’d motion no. “We’re fine.” I’d assure my friend “Ok but remember get the bulbs!” These calls reflected her sincere concern for our ability to adapt to long, dark winters and the fear we might succumb to SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. One must respect a medical condition’s acronym that spells out the symptom as well.
The bulbs refer to extra wattage light therapy bulbs that provide the additional light or the vitamin D or whatever one needs to counter winter depression. When we planned to move to Sweden from California many asked how we might cope with long winters and depression. Having grown up in Philadelphia, winters did not worry me nor did depression. If anything I welcomed the season.

However, people continued to warn of the impending winter. That fall on a rather sunny day the principal of my school insisted I go home early.  She even enticed me with an afternoon off with pay to ensure that I got out in what she advised might be the last I saw the sun for a while This growing panic of concern became annoying and worrisome. Not worrisome for the fear of winter but for the ominous tone these warnings took on. These cautions spoken in hushes and whispers made one wonder what really happened here in the winters.
Were the streets filled with zombies? Did people go mad and slaughter their loved ones in a fit of cabin fever? I survived twenty some winters in Philadelphia, so winter presented nothing new for me.
Through November, December and into January I enjoyed reacquainting with the winter season. Then about the third week of January the veil descended. I returned home and climbed into bed. After this depressive nap, I wandered into my wife and said, “ I think we need to get the bulbs” My teacher’s salary prevented the purchase of these expensive bulbs. So taking further advice from my friend I turned on every light in the house. This low budget and bulbage approach worked. And we survived the winter.
As our second winter approached my mother-in-law invited us to her condominium’s Christmas tree lighting party. Condominium associations in Sweden offer order-loving Swedes comfort with their rules, regulations and codes of conduct. They also host several yearly holiday social functions.
We accepted this invite only because the association bestowed upon my daughter the honor of lighting the Christmas tree. Denying a child this holiday experience generally triggers calls to social services, which then result in potential fines and jail time in Sweden. I turn up to this event quite over the realties of Swedish winter. As we arrived to the snow covered yard on this cold, clear, crisp, very dark night a man played Christmas tunes on an accordion, legally mandated by the Swedish Government. Ladies served glögg the traditional warmed, red spiced wine along with hot chocolate and ginger bread cookies.
People began gathering, talking, snacking and mulling around the TREE. In the U.S. when you think of Christmas trees you think of an evergreen filled with blinking colored lights, ornaments and tinsel. They had instead strewn an oak tree with clear white light bulbs, not blinky, blinky Christmas lights but light bulbs screwed into light sockets and strung on thick electrical cords .
Granted after one Christmas season in Sweden I’ve grown accustomed Sweden’s Aryan Lights of Christmas Policy where multiple color light need not apply. But to awkwardly string large clear light bulbs across an oak tree just seems wrong. I wondered to myself what sort of low budget, Soviet era, cold war Christmas is this?
So before they lit the tree, the condominium association’s president makes a speech. Trust me nothing happens in Sweden without someone making a speech and singing a song.
There is a song for most occasions and speeches are made at every event. You cannot change a light bulb, let alone switch one on, in Sweden without someone making a speech and singing a song. During speeches I usually tune out, smiling and nodding not understanding a thing. He could have announced they planned to impale then burn the American among us and I would have smiled and nodded away, clapping when every one clapped, laughing when everyone laughed, safe in my immigrant bubble. So he welcomes everyone or so I imagine. Then introduces the children chosen to illuminate this shanty town, low budget, non blinking, non colored, classic Edison light bulbs screwed into a light socket and strung awkwardly in an oak tree moment.
So they count: three, two, one, and the children flick the switch. Immediately the dimly lit yard fills with clear, pure, unfiltered white light making it visible from space leaving me to wonder if the Federation of Former Soviet States might now be on military alert.


As I looked around at the smiling people, I got it. I clearly understood the reason for the non-blinking, non-colored, white lights only policy. The white lights blow out the darkness, the lack of light that leads to pre and post holiday depression. Filled with happiness my sprits now in a word uplifted, I wondered if our bank might swing us a loan for the bulbs.

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