A Chapter of A Guide to Finland, titled “Kaamos: or gloom, doom and autumn sunsets”
(This is a blog post version of this chapter; the most current and proofread version is a permanent page, accessable through the Guide’s table of contents, as are all the other chapters.)
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All summer long Finnish people moan and complain about insects: the Finnish brand of mosquitoes, the shrilly buzzing, blood-sucking menace, or then about various other pests — the silent, speck-sized things whose bites bleed for forever, or then common flies that go bump, bump against the ceiling all night, keeping you awake and your eyes filled with red-tainted visions of unspeakable cruelty.
Then again, Finns are habitual nags and grumblers; things aren’t really bad until the Finn stops complaining.
And this chapter deals with that thing that can strike even a Finn quiet.
There is one Finnish word you really should know, now when your teeth aren’t yet chattering too loudly to prevent forming words. This word is kaamos.
It has two meanings.
There is an English equivalent to one meaning of the word, namely, polar night: that period when, north of the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t rise for a couple of days in the darkest winter. The farther north you go, the longer this period of sunlessness. (In the summer, it is balanced by a few nightless nights, when the sun never sets.) If this seems improbable or impossible to you, you can use your good deed of the week on buying a physics student a cup of coffee and asking her about the tilt of Earth’s axis.
Now, in most of Finland, you don’t have to worry about days without sun, because the Polar Circle divides Finland at Rovaniemi, north of which there is nothing but reindeer and snow.
And a few Sami and a few Finns, but on the average only reindeer and snow. (And Santa, who is too hefty to be erased by any averaging process.)
Still, when the Finnish winter comes, the nights will be long, the days will be lightless and wan, and snow will cover all, like a silent, cold shroud.
If you’re really unlucky, it is warmer than usually and the first permanent snow is delayed — then it is even darker, with Finland seemingly painted with just the reds of constant sunrise-sunsets and the blacks of dripping, haggard birches and rain-slick conifers.
So, whether the snow is early or late, Finnish winter often leads to the second meaning of the word kaamos — namely, a mental state: winter depression.
You might know about autumn depression, that sad feeling when leaves fall from the trees, or spring depression, when everything’s covered with rain and sludge. There might even be summer depression, but as a Finn my observations on summer are too few to comment on that. But winter depression, ah, that’s something!
Every day will seem the same, dull and hard, except that ever so slowly mornings dawn with increasing tardiness, as if they were tired too, and evenings darken sooner, like the sun was too weary to stay up in the skies. Every day will be a bit colder, the wind a bit more biting, the rain a bit more like a shower of needles. Then will come the snow, and for a moment everything will be clean and wonderful. Then you’ll notice that it isn’t the white of purity and enchantment, but the color of sterility and lonely death —
Well, anyway, kaamos is a thing that makes me write depressing things like that, and I’m a Finn. It can be even harder for foreigners, because it’s so shocking and seemingly wrong — who ever heard of the sun altering its course and time in the skies? — and because it just lasts and lasts.
And then, when you’ve almost gotten over it, the heavy-handed specter of Christmas, the ghost of Stress Yet to Come, comes.
Thousands and thousands of Finns suffer from kaamos depression, or depressio hiemalis as the fancy Latin of doctors terms it. Depression, anxiety, exhaustion, restlessness — it’s all mostly because of the lack of light. How are you supposed to wake up and keep moving when it’s dark outside when you go to work, and dark again when you get out? It’s as if the cold colorless world outside settled into your bones — unfeeling, unmotivated, a dull ache, a hunger that can’t be satisfied, a sleepiness that can’t be shaken — all in all, not a nice thing at all.
Apparently there’s one treatment for this: kirkasvalohoito or bright light treatment — not some New Age poppycock despite the name, but half an hour spent sitting next to a very bright lamp every day. Since this is supposed to be a sun-replacer, it helps if you have a good imagination and a robust gift for the suspension of disbelief.
Oh, and the period when this depression usually claws at people? From September to April. Some Finns suffer through it every winter.
Do you now understand why there are so few people in Finland? Try getting excited with your spouse when neither really wants to move a limb.
It’s not the physical cold of winter that makes Finland so eerie — it’s the mental cold and darkness that oozes from everything here, and slowly sinks its fangs into you, year after year. (Oh, by the way: this Guide isn’t sponsored by the Tourist Ministry of Finland. Just lettin’ you know.)
When autumn turns to winter it is the time when demented people get lost outdoors and disappear into the darkness, never to be seen again. It is a season of depression, white pills, suicides, drunken fights, nervous breakdowns, sick leaves and exhaustion that seems impossible to shake off or get over.
If you wonder why Finns are the way they are — well, the cheery and social ones were ground down and bowled over by endless years of cold kaamos centuries ago. Living in Finland requires, so I tell myself from time to time, requires grit. Or in Finnish sisu, the special Finnish perseverance that refuses to quit even when there’s nothing left to fight for.
Please, don’t be alarmed by this. Don’t take a taxi to the airport and demand a ticket back home.
It’s impossible, you see. Too many Finns fleeing the cold dark to Rhodes or the Canary Islands.
That’s a solution, too, though it costs more than a bright lamp.
A third “cure” for kaamos, one that’s especially available to you, dear stranger, if you’re not a born Finn, is cornering your local Finnish gal or guy and talking to her/him. Finns are good company if you just warm them up a bit. (In contrast, if you throw a Finn to the middle of a circle of twenty exchange students and expect him to be funny and engaging, you’ll discover that Finns make great pillars of salt, too.) And there’s lot to talk about in Finns and Finland. Use the dark evenings of sleet and blizzards, and your southlander social wiles, to your education and entertainment.
Oh, and “southlander social wiles” is what we Finns expect you suave, cultural, elegant foreigners to have. If you don’t have any, relax: just call things recherche and you’re a-okay.
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No, not the black-dressing friends of good music. The old, hairy, axe-swinging sort.
Jordanes’s “Scandza” refers to the peninsula of Sweden-Norway, which does indeed seem an island if you only know the southern parts. The “Adogit” were the northern Norwegians of those times.
Now in the island of Scandza, whereof I speak, there dwell many and divers nations, though Ptolemaeus mentions the names of but seven of them. There the honey-making swarms of bees are nowhere to be found on account of the exceeding great cold. In the northern part of the island the race of the Adogit live, who are said to have continual light in midsummer for forty days and nights, and who likewise have no clear light in the winter season for the same number of days and nights.
By reason of this alternation of sorrow and joy they are like no other race in their sufferings and blessings.
And why? Because during the longer days they see the sun returning to the east along the rim of the horizon, but on the shorter days it is not thus seen. The sun shows itself differently because it is passing through the southern signs, and whereas to us the sun seem to rise from below, it seems to go around them along the edge of the earth.
(From the Getica hypertext at the University of Calgary; thanks, Canada!)
“Like no other race in their sufferings and blessings”? I hope that cheers you. There aren’t many places where you can so clearly see the machinery of the universe turning, and even burning — because in the darkness of winter, you can always hope to see the revontulet, or aurora borealis, the northern lights.
Revontulet (always a plural) means fox-fires. Apparently an old legend of Lapland tells of ghost foxes fighting, their tails sweeping across the sky.
If kaamos depresses you, just remember there’s plenty of beauty even in the darkness.
(Cropped from a magnificent pic (public domain) in Wikipedia; though this pic is from Alaska, it’s the same landscape as in Finland, and the same silent dance.)