Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas and this time of year in Finland

So it's that time of year again. There is no white Christmas in Helsinki this year which is especially sad in a country like Finland, because no white Christmas means a grey Christmas. This is what it looked like when I left the house last Monday at midday.

If you have never experienced the extremes of northern seasonal light differences you cannot appreciate the effect that something as simple as daylight, or lack of it, can have on your body. Growing up in Trinidad, light is something you take for granted. It is always around every day, rain or shine, all year round for twelve hours a day. In the far north there can be continuous sunlight in the summer, while in the winter the sun never rises. Luckily for me Helsinki isn’t so far north that we have such extreme daylight variances. There are daylight hours in the winter. The problem is that it can be so cloudy, especially when it is a rainy winter like this one, that you don’t see the sun.
This kind of weather can cause Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or winter blues in layman’s terms. It is a condition where your brain doesn’t stop producing the sleep hormone melatonin. Normally when the sun rises in the morning your eyes, although closed, will “see” the sunlight. This stimulus will signal the brain to stop producing melatonin and you wake up. In the evening when it gets dark the opposite will happen. So guess what happens when you never see the sun? Basically your melatonin levels go through the roof and your body rhythms get mixed up.
In fact, as I write, I am sitting in from of my bright light therapy lamp. It is the only thing that keeps me going when I haven’t seen the sun for a week or more. In the autumn/winter of 2009 I became very ill with SAD. In the middle of October of that year the sun seemed to migrate to Africa with the birds or something. After two weeks without sunlight I became extremely lethargic. Even though I was extremely tired I couldn’t sleep at night. I would fall asleep at five or six in the morning and then could not wake up during the day. I started getting headaches all the time, couldn’t concentrate and had no energy to do anything. At home I literally lied on the couch all day and had to force myself to do even the bear minimum at work. I felt like I was dying. After a week of these feelings, I thought something must be seriously wrong with me, so I went to the Occupational Healthcare doctor. He asked me a few questions and when I expected him to tell me I had some terminal illness he said I had SAD. I was shocked that something as simple as sunlight could have such a profound effect on my mental and physical health. He prescribed some low dose antidepressants, which I didn’t like the idea of, but thought I would try anything at this point. Then five days later my boss bought me a bright light lamp. A bright lamp can be used for bright light therapy during the winter months to help regulate your circadian rhythms and basically prevent you from going crazy After an hour of using the lamp for thirty minutes I suddenly had a burst of energy which I had not had in weeks. I went home and cleaned my house, made dinner and went to bed at a normal time for the first time in two weeks. I threw out my antidepressants. I loved the bright lamp so much I had to buy my own. I am sure it has probably helped to prevent postnatal depression this year.
Finns will ask me “Have you been taking your vitamin D”? Or they will say “Cheer up the days will be getting longer soon”. These comments irritate the hell out of me. I am taking my bleeping vitamins but it doesn’t help! And what difference does it make if the days are longer but the sun doesn’t penetrate the clouds! I read somewhere once that people in the northern countries are more likely to have a gene which prevents you from developing SAD. Also, I guess if you live your entire life here you are used to it and it probably doesn’t affect you as much.
So I don’t think most Finns really understand how very ill I get during the winter without my bright lamp. Anyway I’m glad that I have found something so simple but so effective in my bright light lamp.
 On a happier note, yesterday we celebrated Christmas. In Finland Christmas is celebrated on the twenty-fourth not the twenty-fifth. Finns will pay their respects to their dead loved ones at the cemetery with their family and then have Christmas dinner. It sounds like a depressing concept for Christmas but it makes sense to want to spend Christmas with all your family even if they are dead.
Christmas is the most important holiday in the Finnish calendar (not Carnival like we Trinis) and the Finnish Christmas menu is extensive. Finns will have a Christmas dinner consisting of starters of smoked or salted salmon and pickled herrings (basically raw fish), salmon roe (raw fish eggs), with bread and potatoes, and a special pink salad of carrots, apples and beet root. The main course will be ham, potato casserole, carrot casserole and swede/rutabaga casserole. They also bake plum pastries and ginger bread cookies. Some people like my mother-in-law even make a ginger bread house. My mother-in-law goes all out cooking and baking for a week before Christmas. She loves Christmas and loves to have the whole family around while she decorates, cooks and bakes.
This year it is just the three of us and our dog together for Christmas. Usually we would visit my In-laws who live in BudapestHungary but as we have a three month old this year we decided to stay at home. Our Christmas dinner was a compromise of a few of my favourite Trini dishes and few of my husband’s favourite Finnish dishes. This year I tried to make the traditional Finnish Christmas potato and rutabaga casseroles. Usually when we do not go to the in-laws’ home for Christmas I simply buy them. I pimp them out in my own casserole dishes, heat them in the oven and voilá “homemade” Christmas casseroles. Suzy homemaker I am not. But as we have been trying to eat more organic foods and less chemical-laden foods I decided to try to make them myself this year. I must say, after one experimental mistake of incubating the potato casserole at a temperature perfect for bacterial growth, my other attempt went well and my casseroles were very tasty. It was just like a Finnish mother (which I guess is what I am now) would make. I was so proud of myself that I thought, “Well A! A! Look at how dis Trini making peruna and lanttulaatikko nah!” Will wonders never cease? After nine years I still sometimes stop and wonder how on earth I ended up here. It is not the most likely scenario for a little Trini girl to end up in.
Now we have way too much food to eat in one week, for which I can’t help but feel a little guilty when there are so many unfortunate people in the world. But the food will definitely not go to waste. It will be frozen and enjoyed again and again for the next two months or so. Merry Christmas everyone and to all my Trini friends, enjoy the blazing Christmas sun for me. 

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