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Forests and Faith under the Northern Lights

Per Rosenberg discusses the wooden churches of Scandinavia and the symbolic importance of the forest.

Per Rosenberg takes us on a journey in to the heart of the vast forests of Sweden to explore their symbolic importance and as Christmas approaches he visits the atmospheric and candlelit wooden churches of Scandinavia. The medieval wooden churches, date to the very earliest days of Christianity in Scandinavia and tell the story of the meeting of the Norse and Christian cultures. Producer: Phil Pegum.

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15 minutes

Forests and Faith under the Northern Lights

The forest of late November is silent. At first very silent, but after a while some weak but high-pitched bird-voices are heard. The aggressively independent great, blue and crested tit, together with, maybe nuthatches and common tree creepers, have now joined forces. In the summer they defend their territories with great determination. Now in the winter forest, multi-species bands of birds are covering great distances foraging together. 
The forest is almost at a constant dusk. Proper light for a few hours, but the forest is still not frozen. Instead moist, calm and set in the late autumn colors of different hues of green, grey, brown and yellow. 
I ease down. Without something insulating me from the chill of the stump, it will soon become very uncomfortable.
From somewhere inside the dense branches of a Norwegian spruce, I hear some simple tones. A kinglet, often heard but hard to see if you don’t remain still for a while. At 5-6 grams the smallest of all European birds, but still wearing its’ royal crest with pride. It is able to survive a cruel winter, making a living out of miniscule spiders and insects hiding in the crevices of the trees.
Life is retreating. It's set on low, but it is there. The forest is not dead, far from, but it's moving in a slower pace.  The metaphor of nature resting is maybe correct for some, but surely not for those creatures searching for the little food available. If the winter gets hard, many of them will not live to see spring.
A couple of weeks later, the scene is completely changed. The cold night has turned all the moisture into ice. The brittle, but clear sound of ice breaking everywhere.  Miniature icicles in the thousands hanging from each tree and bush. Each little puddle of water covered with thin ice, ready to shatter at the slightest touch of my boot. When the first morning wind comes, the forest turns into a gentle concert with thousands of small jingle bells made out of breaking ice.  A symphony of crystal.
While the snow falls, or maybe today in the time of climate change I should say, if the snow falls, the people of the north retreat indoors.
This is the time of Advent. The start of Advent is still, even in the secularized north an important event. The churches are filled with candles and the music is full of anticipation. Not quite yet Christmas, but it is in the air. Somewhere here a new year begins. A shift maybe more in one’s mind than reflected in any real changes in light or weather. Candles and lights are lit and the new church year begins.
In the openings of the forests, on the richer soils, where people had long been growing their crops, that’s where the first churches in Sweden were built, approximately a thousand years ago. Often a small wooden church linked to the farm of a local chieftain. The site was often linked to the old cult, where the church was build close to an old sacred grove.  Many of the old oaks and ash trees in the churchyards of today are descending directly from the sacrificial trees used to worship the Norse gods. 
Many of the small wooden churches were quickly replaced by stone structures. More durable and definitely a little bit more ‘up-scale’. But not everywhere. Some were left and others were still built in wood. In reality, the tradition to build your church out of wood never completely went out of style, even if the stone churches became the norm. However, time has of course taken it's toll. Of the really old wooden medieval churches only a few remain. Rot, leaking- roofs and fires have taken most of those that didn’t fall victim to changes in fashion. In Sweden only 14 medieval wooden churches remain. Often containing wall paintings and sculptures, sometimes originating from the founding of the church. 
Somewhere half-way in between the start of Advent and Christmas, Sweden celebrates Lucia, maybe its most distinctive of Christmas traditions linked to the winter solstice.  In the present Gregorian calendar the solstice takes place in the night between December 21st and 22nd.  Before 1753, when the Julian calendar was still used, winter solstice took place on December 13th. The day of St Lucia.
Lucia was a girl from Syracuse in Sicily. Martyred in the 4th century under the Diocletian persecution.  Finally killed by a sword, when the fire lit for her refused to touch her and the boiling oil wouldn’t harm her. The celebration, of a Christian saint named Lucia has become maybe the most important celebration of the coming of light. Both in the form of nature turning, but also in the coming of Christ. A girl,  dressed in pure white for innocence, with candles in her hair, a red ribbon around her waist symbolizing martyrdom, has become a bringer of light. With her, she brings her handmaidens and sometimes different figures of mixed origins, like star boys, gingerbread men and gnomes. A highly Christian tradition, mixed with old celebrations of the turning of the sun, has become one of the most important holidays in Sweden. 
Now a couple of days before Christmas,  the forest is at its absolute darkest. Nothing moves if it doesn’t have to. The forest is left with its habitants and its mysteries.
The forests of the past were vast and sometimes impenetrable. They were clearly the home of wolves and bears and in some places outlaws.  But also of trolls, gnomes and hulders – the seductive forest spirits.  The forest could be scary but at the same time it was also the place where you sourced timber, firewood and berries or where your animals grazed. It could also be the source of wisdom, the place for great wonders, or its trees could, at least symbolically, be the foundation of the world.
The forest as a symbol for the unknown or the dangerous has of course existed all over Europe. In the Norse mythology the world is held up by Yggdrasil, the giant Ash tree. At one of its three roots, is the well of Mimer – the well of wisdom with Mimer, the giant, guarding the source.  Anyone who drinks from it will hear and see everything in the world. Odin, the highest ranking good of the Norse mythology, gave up one of his eyes for the privilege. 
One of my favorite stories of the wonders taking place deep in the forest is the ‘Legend of the Christmas Rose’, by Swedish author Selma Lagerlof . In this story the winter forests of southern Sweden harbors the greatest wonder at Christmas night. As a celebration of Christ, the deepest corner of the forest comes to life for a night and the simple outlaws living in their cave are the only ones to see it. When the rumor finally reaches a nearby monastery, the abbot sets out with a lay brother to see for himself. The monk who came with the abbot, sees the forest coming to life, but cannot believe that this wonder has been given to only the most insignificant of all people – the outlaws. He breaks the spell by shouting that it must all be the work of the devil and it should all return to hell. The scene disappears and, from grief, the abbot drops down dead. He's found with a bulb in his closed hand. A bulb of Hellebores – The Christmas Rose that will henceforth flower in the winter, to commemorate the forest’s celebration of the birth of Christ.  The deepest forest is the place of secrets, but also of the divine.
Christmas morning and traditionally the most important service of the season. Christ is born and an early morning service is held, maybe as early as six o’clock, so as to make it possible to take care of the animals when you get back home. A habit firmly based in the old agricultural society and one that is still today alive in parts of the country side.  Every candle there are in the church are now lit. The light, reflecting in brass chandeliers and candle holders, showing off paintings on walls and sometimes even in the ceiling. The moving flames make the figures come to life, especially on the uneven surfaces of wood planed by an axe or by an old hand-plane.
Late January – it's time to get your body moving after too much holiday food. Time to put on the skates. The Baltic Sea has frozen, at least along the coast and in among the islands. New ice keeps forming further and further out from the coast. Creating ice free of snow, and perfect for long-distance skating.  The sea can sometimes be felt through the ice as a subtle swell, bending the elastic and thin sea-ice. 
Moving towards land and onto thicker ice, the ice starts to sing. Not the brittle sounds of small icicles, but the deep strong sound of long cracks forming in the thicker ice.  Sounds resembling those of whales singing, sounds, which will travel long distances. At first very unsettling, but in reality reassuring - a sign of thick solid ice. I step off the ice, onto the mainland, entering again into the pine forest of the coast. Resting with a well-deserved cup of scaldingly hot coffee.
Nature has often served as a symbol, source or venue of the divine. St Francis talked to all living creatures and often withdrew to the forested hills of Umbria. Bernard of Clairvaux said that the inspiration he found in nature was worth more than that found in any book. Columba feared the sound of the axe felling the forest, more than death itself.
Maybe our greatest distance to the forest was created, not by the fear of wolves and the unknown, but more by what happened when we started to look upon the forests as a pure economic asset.  When the forests were made devoid of trolls and other mythical creatures. When spiritual reflection became more the realm of our inner-selves, something that took place in the church or in the academy, the forests slowly became only a source of timber, paper or simply employment. Neither a frightening unknown nor an inspiring theater of God’s creation.
But maybe it’s not all lost. We might think we've left the mythical forest behind us, but if you ask the Nordic people today, they will answer differently. While much of the forests are managed intensively and are economically important, they are also most definitely places of spirituality. Even in, or maybe especially in, the most secular of nations many people say that the forests provide a place for reflection and even a place for experiencing the transcendent. For many people the cathedrals shaped by the trunks of the high trees have replaced the stone pillars of ancient cathedrals. And then for some – they are both, the forests and the cathedrals, equal reflections of the same divine reality.
Christmas holidays being over and the usual rhythm of work and school resuming, we soon start longing for a warmer season. And the signs are there. They might need a bit of interpretation, but nonetheless they are there. 
It’s early March. It is biting cold. Maybe 20 degrees below zero. It's dark at night but the Milky Way arches over my head. Orion – the great hunter is soon to leave the winter sky. The ski tracks that might turn a bit soft in the mid-day sun, are frozen rock-hard at night, and the snow crust is hard enough to walk on. The snow crystals sparkle in the star light. In one sense it is the dead of winter, but in the distance I hear a Tengman’s owl.  It's preparing to breed. One of the first birds to do so. It marks a new beginning. The cold is stifling but the tide of spring is already under way – in the sky, in the first warmth of the mid-day sun and in the unrelenting drive to pass life on to a new generation - unstoppable.

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