A light in the dark – traditions to brighten winter’s darkness, from Greenland to Antarctica

These long evenings at the year’s turn, when dusk seems to fall just after lunch, take me back to the extreme polar night I spent on a small, rocky island off the west coast of Greenland a few winters ago. The inhabitants of the Upernavik archipelago have no sight of the sun from late November to January. When I received the email inviting me to work in the artist’s “refuge” at the island museum – described as the most northerly in the world – I was offered a choice of summer or winter. “Contrary to the summertime,” wrote the museum director, “the darkness of the winter to many southerners seems like a terrible and nasty time lying in wait. But when one gets accustomed to the darkness it allows an interlude for thought that one usually lacks.”

Nancy Campbell in snowy forest
Nancy Campbell learned to appreciate the winter dark. Photograph: Tonatiuh Ambrosetti

It was true. As I acclimatised to the continuous darkness, I learned to appreciate the nuances of light: the clear constellations, the changing moon, or the lamps shining from my neighbour’s window. Other senses came to the fore. I heard the howls of sledge dogs echo from a distance, the crunch of a child’s feet in tiny snow boots. While the great icebergs on the horizon gleamed faintly in moonlight on their passage south, I experienced more intimate journeys in the shelter of my cabin and laid some old ghosts to rest.

The experience was austere, yet I was not isolated. There were many festivities to brighten the hours – it’s an endless party when dawn never breaks. The islander way of life taught me the importance of simple attention to rituals, and seeking out companionship. These included the everyday act of self-care that was making porridge for breakfast, and the more social daily round of kaffemik (drinking coffee in one house after another, often accompanied by sweets and biscuits). Christmas, New Year and Valentine’s Day came and went, but the most eagerly anticipated event was the return of the sun. The date of the first faint glow on the horizon varies up and down this coast, usually beginning around 13 January in Aasiat, further south.

Where I was in the north, we watched TV reports from lower latitudes, as the days passed and light crept closer to us. Then came the day when our own community climbed to the highest point of the island for a view of the golden orb rising over the sea ice. We were led by schoolchildren who wore suns cut from yellow paper on their snowsuits and sang a song of welcome. The sun’s return offers a moment of hope, no matter how precarious life in the region has become.

Snowy town with lights coming on
Afternoon light in Upernavik, Greenland. Photograph: Alamy

In Iceland the nights and days are more distinct, but here, too, atmospheric phenomena offer wonder and solace. I lived in a corrugated iron hut in Siglufjörður on the Trollskagi peninsula, while writing my book The Library of Ice. Reading and writing indoors is a common pastime for Icelanders in winter – the Christmas book flood or jólabókaflóðið is a well-known tradition – but outdoors lurk more ephemeral, elemental forms of entertainment. The northern lights – the result of charged particles colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere – appear most often between September and April and especially around the equinox, but this is not guaranteed, and makes them even more intriguing.

northern lights in Iceland
The northern lights’ unpredictability makes them more special. Photograph: Getty Images

While serious aurora hunters watch weather websites for predictions and drive bravely off to distant fjords in their SUVs, I enjoyed waiting for the synchronicity of the green fires as they manifest much closer, framed in my window over a familiar fragment of mountain. According to folklore, the northern lights are the trace left by elves, or “hidden people” (huldufólk) dancing through the dark skies. Many mythic explanations can be found across the Nordic region but perhaps the essence of the lights lies in their unfathomable nature – the mystery and mutability they enshrine.

After all, shadows and scrying and the sixth sense are integral to the character of winter: no wonder the dark months are a time of augury. Making resolutions and telling fortunes are customary ways to greet the new year at its threshold. Once, seeing in the new year with a group of German artists in the Villa Concordia in Bamberg, Bavaria, I took part in lead pouring (das Bleigießen) or molybdomancy. In this ancient practice, molten lead (nowadays, usually tin or wax) is employed like tea leaves to predict the future.

melting lead over a fancy candle
New Year’s Eve lead pouring in Germany. Photograph: Alamy

A small amount of metal is melted in a ladle over a flame, and then poured into a bowl of cold water. The organic, contorted shapes the ingot makes as it cools are interpreted to predict the coming year. For instance, if the lead forms a ball, it is said luck will roll your way. The shape of an anchor promises assistance. The fortune is cast in a moment, but the discussions of these elemental transformation can last the night long, particularly after a bocksbeutel of Franconian fizz.

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Participants in Lerwick’s Junior Up Helly Aa.
Participants in Lerwick’s Junior Up Helly Aa. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The practice of molybdomancy is also found in Finland, where it is known as tinanvalanta. However, in frigid weather a topsy-turvy retreat to a summerhouse in the lake region for a sauna to steam away the old year makes for an intense experience. In summer we ran from my friend’s wooden cabin for a rejuvenating dive into the lake, but when the water is iced over, a roll in fresh snow makes a more-than-satisfactory substitute. Some international commercial spas are introducing artificial “snow rooms” with their sauna treatments – a bold ambition to recreate the experience of wallowing in newly fallen snowdrifts, beneath pine branches bowing under the weight of water crystals. The old year can be obliterated by a few cool shots of cloudberry vodka, although water may be more advisable for those seeking to begin January with the health benefits of this swift transition from heat to cold.

Equally exhilarating, an immersion in the cold waters of the Firth of Forth is a long-held New Year’s Day tradition for Edinburgh folk. But a new initiative has grown up in Portobello for Hogmanay, the preceding evening. Discarded Christmas trees are “planted” on the sandy beach, then burned to signal an end to the festivities. Portobello is the only public park in Scotland where you are permitted to light a fire, and small bonfires are common here throughout the year, though sometimes the new year pyre has been pared back by the authorities. While it may not be the most sustainable way to dispose of seasonal timber, this conflagration by the Firth of Forth is reminiscent of more established Scottish midwinter fire ceremonies from Burghead’s Burning the Clavie to the Comrie Flambeaux, from the Stonehaven Fireballs to Shetland’s Up Helly Aa, which culminates in Lerwick with the dramatic burning of a model Viking ship, a sign of the festival’s Norse origins.

Low sun over Halley VI in Antarctica.
Low sun over Halley VI in Antarctica. Photograph: Stuart Holroyd/Alamy

The destructive power of the elements is nowhere more evident than in winter on the Antarctic icecap. In the southern hemisphere, midwinter falls in June. At research stations, investigations on ice cores, glaciers and the habits of penguins are halted as scientists prepare for the long journey home. At the most southerly British base, Halley VI, temperatures of -30C are made worse by bitter winds, and the sun does not rise for many weeks over its futuristic red and blue pods.

One veteran winterer told me that the oldest person on base lowers the flag at the end of the season, and it’s the youngest who will raise it when the research programme begins again in spring. Meanwhile, in a new year tradition beloved of the few overwintering scientists and support staff at Halley VI, the BBC World Service broadcasts possibly its most unusual programme (as well as serving its smallest intended audience) for the solstice on 21 June. Anyone, anywhere can tune in to this heartwarming mix of greetings from family and friends together with music requests and messages from the British Antarctic Survey. Listeners can travel in their imaginations to commune with those who research past atmospheres and climate to read the planet’s future – the most important kind of augury and enlightenment of all.

Nancy Campbell is author of Fifty Words for Snow (£12.99, Elliot & Thompson) and The Library of Ice (£9.99, Simon & Schuster). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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