A light in the dark – traditions to brighten winter’s darkness, from Greenland to Antarctica

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There’s joy to be found in the darkest winter months, and people living in cold places use a variety of rituals to celebrate the lack of light – and its eventual return

These long evenings at the year’s turn, when dusk seems to fall just after lunch, take me back to the extreme polar night I spent on a small, rocky island off the west coast of Greenland a few winters ago. The inhabitants of the Upernavik archipelago have no sight of the sun from late November to January. When I received the email inviting me to work in the artist’s “refuge” at the island museum – described as the most northerly in the world – I was offered a choice of summer or winter. “Contrary to the summertime,” wrote the museum director, “the darkness of the winter to many southerners seems like a terrible and nasty time lying in wait. But when one gets accustomed to the darkness it allows an interlude for thought that one usually lacks.”

It was true. As I acclimatised to the continuous darkness, I learned to appreciate the nuances of light: the clear constellations, the changing moon, or the lamps shining from my neighbour’s window. Other senses came to the fore. I heard the howls of sledge dogs echo from a distance, the crunch of a child’s feet in tiny snow boots. While the great icebergs on the horizon gleamed faintly in moonlight on their passage south, I experienced more intimate journeys in the shelter of my cabin and laid some old ghosts to rest.

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