Helsinki's winter is also a blessing

Girls steaming at the terrace after sauna
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Considering darkness philosophically can help you discover its beauty. Local writers and thinkers in Helsinki find a magical glow in Finland’s darkest season.



When the temperature drops below freezing and stays there for an entire day, winter has begun. Winter in Southern Finland sometimes begins as early as mid-October, but sometimes only after the turn of the year. In Helsinki, the average temperature in winter has been around minus 3.5 degrees Celsius.

The first snow has fallen on average in mid-October, and permanent snow cover is usually achieved on the last day of the year. The capital’s snow record was set in 1966, when 89 centimetres of snow was measured. The least snow in the history of Helsinki was recorded in 2019.

Two photos merged together. On the left is a black and white portrait of Syksy Räsänen, looking to the right, in the second picture is a an autumnal scene of trees losing their coloured leaves.
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“Darkness is a gentle reminder the end of a period in time”

Cosmologist Syksy Räsänen stops to ponder the darkness of winter with all his senses.

“Spring awaits the arrival of summer, summer fears its end, and winter awaits the end of winter. Autumn is my favourite season in Helsinki. It is the only season during which I do not expect any beginnings or endings.

In the autumn, the night air is distilled into fine ink. The trees dress in bright colours and spread their colours over the ground to be trodden on. With the onset of winter, they undress and await the ritual. Cold stars stare down from the naked sky, and the wet asphalt shines beautifully.

All of this reminds me of the future of humanity. Winter is an annual, gentle reminder of the end of a period in time, even of death. We all have to face death sooner or later, so it does good to receive a harmless reminder of it.

I moved back to Finland ten years ago having lived abroad for eight years. I remember how interesting it was to breathe the cold, freezing air. It chilled the lungs and gave a pleasant feeling of purity.

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All of this reminds me of the future of humanity. Winter is an annual, gentle reminder of the end of a period in time, even of death. We all have to face death sooner or later, so it does good to receive a harmless reminder of it.

However, Helsinki's often slushy winter feels like a half-winter. That is when I am glad it is not too cold at least. But that is a negative shortcoming and not a good thing.

When there is snow in Helsinki, the winters of childhood come to mind. In my memories they are always very long and dark, and the snowdrifts are huge. The snow shines a kind of black light that illuminates naked trees and deserted landscapes. It is pleasing to see darkness and light at the same time – light that comes not from the sky but from the earth.”

Portrait of Salla Tuomivaara, looking at the camera smiling, she is standing next to a large tree .
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“In wintertime, you should make space for pleasures”

Sociologist Salla Tuomivaara creates a calendar for the dark period that is packed with pleasurable activities.

“There are people who enjoy the darkness and the night, but I am a child of the light. The fact that I come from Northern Finland makes the winter in Helsinki more of a challenge for me. I love snow, and I think playing in the snow is part of winter. A proper winter is a great source of joy and something that is also culturally significant, but we are losing it with climate change.

That is why you do not just have to try to enjoy the often grey winter in Helsinki. The gradual disappearance of snowy winters is our common experience and grief. However, I believe that snow-free winters can activate us to do something about it.

In the dark, one must also think about coping with everyday life. Winter is a time when we work actively, although we should rather slow down when the darkness arrives. We should slacken the pace and think about whether we could do less. On the whole, we should try to be more permissive and not follow the same 8am to 4pm rhythm during the darkest season. If we are able to work flexibly, we could enjoy those hours when it is bright and beautiful outside.

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In the dark, one must also think about coping with everyday life. Winter is a time when we work actively, although we should rather slow down when the darkness arrives. We should slacken the pace and think about whether we could do less.

Many Finns have this Protestant morality when they talk about surviving the dark period: one should not give up but should stick to one’s routines and daily rhythms. Instead of sticking to schedules, I think it is more important to stick to pleasures.

I like to create a calendar for the dark period that is packed with pleasurable activities that I have dreamed about: a museum visit, a delicious brunch, a pampering treatment... We often skip these kinds of activities in wintertime because of our heavy workloads and because the darkness and weather make us go straight home after work. However, if we mark these small pleasures in our calendars in advance, it is much more likely that we will actually do them.”

Katriina Huttunen standing in front of a bluish-grey wall looking towards the camera, flowers hanging in front of a memorial stone mounted to the wall on the left.
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“One should not run from the darkness but instead accept it”

For author and translator Katriina Huttunen, winter allows for imperfection.

“For me, the end of the year is the safest season. I do not need light and colours, warmth and lightness in my life. I have Arctic genes, because my compass heading is due north. I dread the arrival of spring. In the summer, I avoid the sun, stay in the shadows and vegetate, but when autumn arrives, I dare to be my own self.

For many people, however, this dark time of the year is challenging, and this year it is even worse because you cannot outsource your wellbeing and enjoyment. There is little stimulus in the environment, and you are constantly hurrying to get out of the cold sleet.

We have to think about what each of us can draw from within to enjoy this time with ourselves. It emphasises the importance of the home.

I like to apply the moral philosophy of Sami Pihlström, which is based on negative thinking.  According to this philosophy, one should dare to address serious and difficult issues instead of finding an escape in toxic positivity that only weakens our ability to grieve. It is not helpful to force yourself to think about other things that are nice and inconsequential.

In the same way, one does not have to run from the darkness. Accepting the reality is always rewarding. In the heaviness and severity of darkness, it feels good to let yourself into this state of mind and not just hope that things will get better.

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The dark time of the year also offers an opportunity to be more permissive. A good mindset for the end of the year is not to try to be perfectionists but rather imperfectionists!

Of course, it is easy for me to defend the darkest time of the year because I do not suffer from seasonal affective disorder. I am still not a night person, but I sleep at night instead of working. In the daytime I like to walk in Hietaniemi Cemetery, about which I have just written a book. Hietaniemi is my mental landscape, and its spirit – its genius loci – is at its finest at the end of the year.

The dark time of the year also offers an opportunity to be more permissive. A good mindset for the end of the year is not to try to be perfectionists but rather imperfectionists. Human faults are not so obvious in the darkness, so you do not have to have a bad conscience, as is often the case in the spring, when the increasing sunlight reveals all the shortcomings. The end of the year is not so cruel and ruthless. It does take a bit of effort, and if you cannot cope, that is okay too. But if you can, it is all a bonus.”

Two images combined. On the left is a black and white portrait of Saku Tuominen and on the right is Eläintarhanlahti lit up by the surrounding buildings at night
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“By listening to my body, I have learnt to like this time of year”

In wintertime, entrepreneur Saku Tuominen sleeps more and burns candles from morning till night.

“I have tried to train my mind to like all the Finnish seasons, so it is a bit annoying that there seems to be only two of them in Helsinki these days: a short summer and a long “sylvi”. Sylvi is my own term for this cold, dark and wet period that comes after autumn ("syksy in Finnish) is only occasionally reminiscent of real winter ("talvi" in Finnish). I love winter and undeniably miss the frost and snow. Still, this season comes every year, so somehow it should be enjoyed. Complaining about the darkness is not a sensible way to live.

But this is not an easy time, so you have to be kind to yourself. You are allowed to sleep – and you have to sleep if you want to remain productive.

I have come to realise that I have to adapt my working day to my natural clock. It helps me to think clearly and work more efficiently. As an entrepreneur, of course, I have had more freedom to do so, but many workplaces and schools could also think about this.

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But this is not an easy time, so you have to be kind to yourself. You are allowed to sleep – and you have to sleep if you want to remain productive.

The seasons vary, so my work rhythm also varies. In the summer, I wake up at six in the morning without an alarm clock, whereas in the winter I sleep to around eight. It does not mean I do less, simply that I start later.

The more I listen to my body, the more I like the dark time of year. In addition to sleeping, I like to enjoy the outdoors and stay fit. With the right clothes on, it feels nice to go out even if it rains.

I am quite introverted and reclusive, and I prefer to spend this time at home. On weekend mornings, I read magazines for a long time, and we often make a fire in the fireplace and burn candles. I just read a story from the Financial Times that asked who has time to burn candles in the morning. I think a better question is, who is in such a hurry that they do not have time to do it?”

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Considering darkness philosophically can help you discover its beauty. Local writers and thinkers in Helsinki find a magical glow in Finland’s darkest season.