It is a fact little known outside Scandinavia that the year consists not of twelve months, but thirteen. The thirteenth month is sandwiched between November and December, and is known as mörv. (No capital letter for the months in Sweden.)
Mörv expresses the feeling that November is bleak, dark, and seems to go on and on forever. Suddenly there is no daylight. That hour we lost at the end of October seems to have plunged us all into permanent night. What sunlight there is is weak, grey and miserable. You go to work in the dark, you go for lunch in the twilight, and you come home in the pitch black. Your Scandi outdoor life is over – unless you’re a masochist, or perhaps a duck. Every surface is permanently damp and will remain so for the next six months.
This year’s first mörv moment for me came a couple of weeks ago when we took our daughter to a popular playground. Because my wife and child took so long to get ready we underestimated how early it gets dark these days, we arrived with daylight fading fast. The other kids had gone home already, so everything was silent but for the splashing of Poppy’s boots in the mud. The wooden playthings were covered in a treacherous layer of slime. Ugh. Mörv.
Mörv is a word originally coined by Jan Berglin, cartoonist for Svenska Dagbladet. Mörv arrives when the nice part of autumn is over but proper winter is still somewhere in the distant future. Living in a country that has four well-defined seasons is a pleasure, but during mörv the joys of the old season are gone while those of the new have not yet begun.
No more can you harvest berries and mushrooms in forests burnished red and gold – it’s all turned to muck underfoot and the trees are bare. But nor can you go sledging or skiing, enjoy the crunch of snow and the crisp, sparkling air. “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes,” goes the Swedish adage. Warning – this does not apply in mörv. You could dress from head to toe in sealskin but you still wouldn’t want to go outside.
Denmark has something similar, but there the month of November just repeats itself like groundhog day. A Danish poet summed it up very well. You haven’t read much Danish poetry? I have so you don’t have to. In a verse entitled “The year has 16 months”, Henrik Nordbrandt wrote:
“Året har 16 måneder: November
december, januar, februar, marts, april
maj, juni, juli, august, september
oktober, november, november, november, november.”
You get the picture. But in Swedish one word will do. Mörv.
This is the month of ghastly and unspecified viruses that flourish until the frost arrives to kill them off. It is the month of working like a dog to get everything done before Christmas. And to help you with this, in November there are no “röda dagar”, bank holidays or long weekends. In fact, Sweden moved the only national holiday – Alla helgons dag, or All Hallows Day – to a Saturday, just so you can work a full week either side.
Mörv is also the month when you can’t put off dull but necessary things any longer. That dental appointment you postponed because the weather was too nice. That itchy mole on your back that really should be seen by a doctor. That bit of DIY you never got around to. You are so busy with mörv that friends go unseen and your social life disintegrates.
This year, the weather tricked us by bringing southern Sweden a taste of winter a few weeks earlier than usual. For a fleeting moment the temperature dropped and we experienced that wonderful icy stillness that comes with a fresh snowfall after dark.
But even that sub-zero blast caught us unawares in the depth of our mörv-induced paralysis. Had you put winter wheels on the car? Of course not, it never freezes in November. Had you replenished your supply of grit and salt for the entrance to your home? Nej. Could you cope? Ingen chans. Knowing this, the kindly Stockholm authorities suggested we all stay at home and sit it out.
They knew it wouldn’t last. The deceitful cold snap is over and now mörv is back, darker, wetter, windier, and with even more work that you haven’t done. Between now and Lucia, mörv. Between now and saffron and candles and fairylights and glögg, only mörv. (With maybe a little Advent baking if you like that kind of thing.)
Cheer up, it won’t last forever. And it could be worse: it could be February. Now that is a truly horrible month.
David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.