The birds, fish and whales have headed south. In London, where I live, many of my friends too have gone south, in search of brighter and warmer places for their Christmas holidays. I, on the other hand, have been enticed northwards to the Swedish Lapland to experience the beauty of the land and skies, to catch a glimpse of semi-wild reindeer and meet the semi-nomadic indigenous people of northern Europe—the Sami.
Here, in the harsh conditions at 66 degrees north at this time of year, the temperatures have plunged to minus 15 degrees Celsius and the daylight is compacted to somewhere between 9am and 2.30pm. The anticipation of the cosy cheeriness of Christmas indoors is particularly welcome as it contrasts sharply with the gloom outdoors. Friends and families are making plans to meet, myriad sparkling lights have been lit, the grocery stores and wine shops are stocked and busy. The thought of milling, drinking and feasting is wafting everyone’s spirits upwards.
When I arrive at night in the small town of Jokkmokk, the centre of the Swedish Sami world, it is blanketed in soft, powdery snow. Walking the streets, I immediately notice something very special; each house and apartment has lamps and snow candles in its windows. They have been placed there to cast an outward warming glow. Many people have added strings of fairy lights to their doorways and trees, creating a festive atmosphere. Large paraffin candles in tins burn strongly and defiantly in the snow outside the shops and restaurants. They have an inviting feel.
The next afternoon, these snow-candles lead me and my friends to the home of Eva Gunnare, who has us over for lunch. Gunnare runs a culinary experience company called Essence of Lapland, weaving in her deep knowledge of locally foraged ingredients and Sami culinary traditions. She is joined by Helena Lanta, a local Sami lady whose family maintains a vast herd of reindeer. They also sell the meat and skins.
With smiles and hugs, they usher us into a tiny octagonal smoke house in the back garden where a fire roars from a central pit and the smoke wafts skywards through an opening in the ceiling.
Coffee is boiled, and as we sip it, Lanta offers us cubes of cheese and thin slivers of dried reindeer meat to drop into our cups, which give the coffee a salty flavour—we joke that it has turned into a coffee stew. Next, our fingers scoop up freshly grilled, bite-sized reindeer steak with pieces of traditional naan-like bread. “After having fish and dried reindeer meat all summer, my grandfather used to be so happy to have fresh meat in the autumn,” Lanta muses.
I ask her if they have any Sami traditions around Christmas. “While we Sami follow Laestadian Christianity quite avidly, the festival is not a big thing for us,” she says. “This time of year, we focus on the reindeer, which are herded down the mountains and brought to the forests nearby. We separate them in smaller groups and make sure they survive the winter and have enough food. It’s hard work and it keeps us very busy. When the sun comes out again in February, that’s the time for celebration.” Gunnare sings a traditional Sami joik for us—a deeply emotional song laden with poetic nuances.
She leads us indoors; we take off our heavy coats and snow boots. Gunnare pours us some glögg, a delicious warm mulled wine spiced with bilberries.
As we settle around her kitchen table, she serves us birch-tree sap, a pure elixir tapped from the trunk. Nettle soup follows, garnished with small pieces of ptarmigan, a bird. The main course is mountain trout, angelica seasoned potatoes and rhubarb marmalade. She has personally gathered most of these ingredients.
Her entire kitchen and freezer is, in fact, a treasure trove of locally foraged leaves, buds, flowers and roots. Dessert is a parfait of bird-cherries plucked from the tree we can see just outside, lingonberry cake and chocolate truffle with rowan berries.
Gunnare ends with a joik that was “given to her” on the mountains she came to love. “Hey hey, hai ya, hey hey hai ya…” the notes soften and rise energetically as we visualise the scenic river delta she describes. “This song is about contrasts,” she tells us. “Of the dark winter and the bright summer, the enormous mountains and the tiny leaves that bud in the spring.”
I ask my Swedish friend Sara Lindstöm, who is accompanying me, what Christmas means to her. Lindstöm is a photographer who belongs to the people the Sami have traditionally called “the Settlers”, and she lives in a cabin in the forest when she’s not in Luleå, the nearest town with an airport.
“Christmas is all about being with my parents and family,” she says. “We light the Advent candles every week and wear a lot of red. The table will be decorated with red mats and Tomte trolls (Swedish gnomes) and we will drink glögg and have a big lunch on the 24th. Our family has stopped all the commercial aspects of the festival, such as exchanging gifts; that is now only for young children.”
What the Sami and Lindstöm and I have in common are warm, fuzzy feelings towards the cultural aspects of Christmas and a spirituality that stems from a connection to nature. Here in Lapland, much of the wilderness has remained intact. There are abundant rivers with fresh water and a series of national parks teeming with reindeer that live in the wilderness for months on end. There are also moose, bear, wolverines, foxes, rabbits and many kinds of birds that nestle in these woods and mountains.
Perhaps the lights that are tantamount to a religious experience for me are the northern lights. The Aurora Borealis makes a strong appearance as I spend the night in a mountain cottage. We spot them right after dinner and dash to a hilltop on a snowmobile to see them in the open. They dance with abandon above us for over an hour. The silvery hues of the moon light up the mountains beyond. They make the snow glisten underfoot, and in that hour, life is a piece of perfection. Hey hey hai ya, hey hey hai ya rents through me. Christmas is coming, together with my birthday. I couldn’t have hoped for a better gift.
Geetika Jain shares notable notions from around the world. She can be followed on Instagram @geetikaforest.