There is no fixed date for the first day of spring.
Instead, SMHI (svenskt metrologiskt och hydrologiskt institut), who is in charge of Swedish weather and climate, defines the start of spring as seven consecutive days with rising temperatures between 0 and 10 degrees Celsius – which does not count if occurring before February the 15th. Dependent on the latitude, this typically takes place between late February and early May.
Most Swedes do not care about such technicalities, but instead have personal definitions of what constitutes spring. It may be the first sight of a particular flower – tussilago is a favourite, or birdsong, or a day when removing layers of clothing is necessary due to ‘heat’. Some people are stubbornly referring to a specific date in the calendar, and insist on wearing summer clothes from, say, the March the 1:st. My own father has, for example, after decades of pondering, come to the conclusion that the Swedish year can be divided in a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ half. According to him, the good half starts on April the 16th, and ends on October 15th.
In countries like Sweden, where huge seasonal variations cannot be ignored in everyday life, the social structures and habits that come with it can be intriguing from a Newbie point of view.
This time of the year, you might wonder why your Swedish friends and colleagues are displaying such obsession for oversized, greasy-yet-dry buns without much sophistication in flavour or appearance. The truth is that our love for semla has nothing to do with culinary appreciation, but in fact stems from its promise of longer days and shorter nights. Almond and cardamom topped with whipped cream tastes of hope on the Swedish tongue.
As sunset is slowly shifted forward a few minutes per day, the daily structure and premises also change.
It is not so much the days in themselves that are getting longer, but rather the evenings – kvällarna. The word kväll does not translate directly into English, it would be somewhere between evening and night – the time between work and sleep. Whereas kväll is the time for rest and recovery during the dark months, spring implies walks, social activities, pic-nics, cycling. They will finish later as the light is a source of energy, and begin earlier, as people find excuses to leave work early.
I heard many Newbies assuming that Swedes work less during the dark months, and more during the lighter half of the year. This assumption builds on the logic that you might need more time to recover when the weather is bad, and sunset comes late. In fact, most Swedes work much more during winter, and try to work less during spring and summer. Some work places even reduce the 40-hour week with a few hours. Why? When it’s nice outside, we need to make the most of it.
Reflecting this need to enjoy, the spring semester is punctured with a number of secular and secularised holidays.
The exact days are decided according to a severely complicated system of week numbers, mixed with ancient Christian definitions determined by the moon. Thus, a favourite activity during winter is to calculate how many days we will get off work, dependent on how the holidays match up with weekends. A particularly favourable year will be a subject for attention in the national news, and debated amongst friends and co-workers. Although these holidays are the time to enjoy (anything else would be a crime), it should be noted that the enjoyment lies in preparation and anticipation for the real stuff – summer. The days and evenings are bursting with fervent activity. To ensure maximum efficiency, you Swedish colleagues will consider it perfectly appropriate, or even necessary, to leave work right after lunch the day preceding a holiday.
This is the very opportunity for your Swedish friends, colleagues and neighbours to facilitate the shift to living outside. Spring is a time when the inside-outside is re-defined, through the furnishing of gardens and balconies, the opening of the sommarstuga, the change of habits. The winter routine of dinner around the kitchen table is abandoned for picnics, improvised meals in the park, the forest, lake shores, balconies, courtyards, on the go. Your typical Swede is unwilling to waste a single minute staying inside, if there is the chance of catching a few rays of the setting sun. As spring nights can be surprisingly chilly after a beautiful day, and the suggestion to return inside is considered an offence, my advice is persist – and dress warm.
During winter, you cannot expect your Swedish friends to meet you, unless it is planned weeks in advanced.
We are all insistently sticking to our schedules and weekly routines, worried that we would lose the control over life, and end up in a state of hibernation. With longer days, energy levels catching up, and work not taken as seriously, you will suddenly be exposed to spontaneous meet-ups and ventures.
In my experience, Newbies often welcome this change in attitude, whereas Oldies often express resentment and irritation in this – as many people have expressed it – schizophrenic behaviour. Other rules are also abandoned. In winter, there are systems for which side of the street you can park on, dependent on the day, or what streets need to be cleared on specific weekdays. However much car-owners hate this system, they know it is necessary to ensure that streets can be cleared of snow. Later, when the snow has melted, streets and pavements are covered in sand, a reminder of when such measures where necessary to avoid to many falling injuries on the ice. In May, the sand is cleared, and as soon as the word has spread, cyclists will appear. You will discover an abrupt decrease in the number of fellow travellers on public transport.
Spring in the Nordics is slow and painful.
There will be weeks and weeks of tentative sunshine, backlashes with snow, hail, temperatures sinking, combined with an almost naïve enthusiasm among your friends. When you expect it the least, one day, there will be a sudden burst of flowers, a few nights buzzing with life. And then it is over. Summer has arrived.