As the clocks go back, the Guardian travels to Iceland where black winter is celebrated as a season of love, beer and obsessions

Patrick Barkham in Reykjavik
The Guardian, Saturday 30 October 2004

Gloom descends when the clocks go back one hour tomorrow morning. Not until February 2005 will the sun shine at 5pm again. Oh unhappy days, weeks, months of winter. But stop your moaning, people of Great Britain. That would be the message from the people of Iceland this weekend, if they ever deigned to be so impolite.

Reykjavik is the most northerly capital in Europe. While southern Britons rail at Scottish farmers, whose desire to enjoy a mid-morning tea-break in the daylight condemns them to lurch from the joys of British Summer Time to the despair of Greenwich Mean Time, the people of Iceland must rise, lunch and leave work in a near-perpetual hard day’s night.

According to the Hávamál, a 1,000-year-old book of ancient Viking wisdom, “a man needs warmth – the warmth of fire, and of the shining sun”. In the winter, Icelanders have to make do with fire. While the melancholic Finns take refuge in saunas, and the Swedes collapse on their sun-beds, the Icelandic nation is more upbeat about their months of gloom.

“We love winter,” said Thorarian Sveinsson, a doctor cocooned in a scarf and puffy coat to repel the freezing drizzle that falls on the streets of Reykjavik. “We have 24 hours of light in the summer and that is enough.” Icelanders meet the black eye of winter with a steely gaze and a touch of bravado. “Those who cannot live with it,” said Dr Sveinsson, with the chuckle of a James Bond villain, “They will die.”

Suicide comes later. Right now, Icelanders look forward to the months of darkness. There is so much more to do in the dark. Many rediscover the joys of playing together, and staying together, as a family. Board games are popular, if Icelanders are not obsessing over the movies.

“On the west coast almost everyone is an expert in something, whether it is stamp collecting or classic cars,” said Valur Gunnarsson, editor of the Reykjavik Grapevine. “We have to have something to do in the winter. Most Icelanders are movie buffs. There are always arguments about whether Anthony Hopkins deserved his Oscar for Silence of the Lambs because he spent so little time on screen.”

Jigsaw puzzles are also big in Iceland. Some run into thousands of pieces. “A friend of mine did a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle,” said William Thomas, a window-cleaner. He sups his Viking beer while the barmaid tends to her makeup in the mirror behind the bar. “My friend put the puzzle together and then he painted it white with a red dot in the middle. People thought he had made it like that. ‘How did you do it?’ they asked. It’s funny. That’s one thing Icelanders do to each other in winter – play a lot of jokes.” When not laughing in the dark, this phlegmatic nation falls asleep. “Compared with other European countries we lie in bed a little longer,” Dr Sveinsson conceded. “Maybe that’s because of the darkness.”

Dagbiort Blondal, 19, is a student. Her name means “day bright” in English. “When it comes to autumn we are so tired and we sleep all the time,” she said. “When I get home from school I sleep for two hours before I go out.”

The dark gets harder to deal with when you get older. You stop believing in Father Christmas, and your bones ache. But even mature Icelanders appreciate the benefits of warm clothes and heating.”When I was young it was so cold you cannot imagine,” said Mr Halldorsson. “There was no heating. You had to work in not so good clothes and the rain got through to your body.”

Darkness. The boys and girls of Iceland know what it leads to. “It has been regarded as romantic,” began Mr Thomas cautiously. “You can’t see exactly what the babe is like until the next morning but even then it’s dark. If the dark does anything, it perks me up. In the darkness I can be doing a lot of things I cannot in the broad daylight.” Leering does not come easily to Icelanders, but Mr Thomas does quite a good impression.

A frenzy grips Iceland in the autumn. “This is the first winter I haven’t had a boyfriend for several years,” said Andrea Palmadottir, 19, looking doleful. She believes the dark of winter is much more romantic. “I love to drive around at night and watch the lights from the car and listen to slow music. The summer is more like a playtime. We’re just going to play around; we don’t want to have boyfriend then.”

“In late summer, early autumn, desperation sets in,” agreed Mr Gunnarsson. “You feel like you have to find someone to snuggle up to for the winter. It goes back to Viking days when there were always two to a bed to keep each other warm.”

According to doctors, rates of depression are lower than in other north European nations. But just as the arrival of spring should lift hearts, so Icelanders fall down. The really dark side of winter comes with spring. “In the springtime we are like cows let out into the meadow. We go ‘whaaaaa’!” said a barmaid, jumping around like a frisky Friesian. But for some, there is no such escape. “Most Icelanders kill themselves in the spring – that’s the crazy thing,” said Mr Thomas. “They kill themselves when the sun comes up.”

Sigurbjorg Gudmundsdottir lives near the Hallgrimskirkja, the grand church that towers over Reykjavik. More people go to church in winter, she said, and she can hear the chimes that signal another funeral. “By spring, people are just finished. They are drained. And they are frightened of taking another round.”

Icelandic survival tips

  1. Romance For the men of Iceland, it’s a fumble in the murk without ever having to see just how beautiful your beau is. For the women, it’s a moonlit drive under the northern lights. Either way, darkness is essential.
  2. Hot tubs outdoors The UK may lack the requisite levels of geothermal activity, but why not dig a hole in your backyard and fill it with hot water? “It gets all misty in the frost and it’s romantic,” said one young Icelander.
  3. Football Why play in the daylight on grass like a southern European Jessie when you can get the sliding tackles in on a frozen lake under floodlights like teenagers do in Reykjavik? The main Icelandic football season is in summer. In winter the country survives on a diet of five English Premiership matches every weekend.
  4. Play your cards right Older Icelanders recommend whiling away the winter evenings with a game of bridge.
  5. Catch some culture “Cultural things lie low in the summertime. People go to the theatre much, much more in the winter,” said one Icelandic woman. “Wherever there are two Icelanders together there will be a choir. And a theatre”.
  6. Cultivate an obsession If it is not jigsaws, movies or practical jokes, collecting old cars or stamps will suffice.
  7. Work Work harder. Or work less. The word from Iceland is you should lie in for longer and work shorter hours in winter. Some might call it hibernation. Most taxi drivers work six to eight hours in winter but 15 in summer.
  8. Books It’s an old one. “I read a lot of books,” said William Thomas. “You cannot find any Icelanders who don’t read. That’s our past-time.” Or TV, with a cup of hot cocoa.
  9. Family Remember those strangers who live in your house? Even if it is only the winter that brings you together, it is something to be treasured. “Winter puts the family together because what else can you do?”.
  10. Diet and drink Beer was legalised in 1989 and the transformative power of alcohol is revered. Some still celebrate “beer day”. Proper fresh fish is also good for the spirits. Asked to send a message to Guardian readers, one Icelander said: “Don’t hide yourselves in fish and chips. Come to Iceland. We’ll show you: sex and drugs and rock’n’roll by candlelight”.