I am totally crazy about Christmas. That, coupled with my insomnia, usually resulted in A restless Christmas Eve. Keeping vigil at my bedroom window, opera glasses in hand, I’d stare at the sky searching for Santa’s sleigh. Clement C. Moore obviously didn’t have sleep psychology in mind when he wrote ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, for his wide-awake narrator actually sees St. Nick. The kids, on the other hand, are stuck dreaming of candied fruit. You didn’t have to convince me who got the better deal. Sleep simply didn’t pay.
Growing up in Massachusetts, where a white Christmas often meant a blizzard, I was too excited to waste time in bed. After my father shoveled the driveway, he would build an igloo, which I’d decorate with castoffs from our basement—a lawn chair, a frayed oriental runner, a broken Wedgwood candlestick. I’d sit in there and read my Nancy Drew books, pretending I was an Eskimo princess keen on solving mysteries. Every so often my mother would shout from the house, “You’ll freeze to death!” But I didn’t care. When I’d finally emerge, my grandfather, who lived with us, would build a fire and make hot chocolate with Marshmallow Fluff on top.
I inherited my fragile sleep genes from him. He’d wake up at 2 a.m. and head downstairs to read Webster’s Dictionary. I could always assess the quality of his sleep by the number of new words foisted on me at breakfast. “You better eat your Cream of Wheat,” my grandfather would say, “so you will feel satiated. May I offer you some delectable doughnuts? Don’t eat too many, however, or it could prove deleterious to your burgeoning waistline.”
On Christmas morning before we went to church, he made the most ambrosial pancakes, which I gobbled down so I could open the rest of my presents. I was an only child for six years, and the family albums are filled with pictures of me presiding over my loot in utter delirium. Is it any wonder I still believed in Santa when some of my classmates were already wearing bras?
Years later, when I moved to New York and married my husband, Lee, I tried to temper my obsession with Christmas, but it only got worse. While he preferred to go skiing, I insisted we spend the holidays in the city so I could have a tree. I needed one at least 12 feet tall to accommodate all the handblown glass balls I’d collected. And then there were the ornaments of historical and literary figures, such as the entire cast of A Christmas Carol and the kings and queens of England. I had to wire the tree to a bookshelf in case it fell. And then, two years ago, it did—on me.
Lee found me beneath it, nose to nose with Queen Elizabeth, whose scepter was precariously close to my eye. Tiny Tim, having lost his crutch, was facedown in shards of broken glass. Water was everywhere.
My husband, surveying the disaster, had only this to say: “Next year we’re going away for Christmas.”
The Icehotel is located some 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in Swedish Lapland. We’ve come here for Christmas, partly as research for a book I’m writing on sleep. I wanted to experience the polar nights, when daylight lasts only a few hours, while staying in the world’s largest igloo. There is, however, another reason I picked this remote place. In Lapland reindeer outnumber people, and I have this idea that if I actually see one on Christmas, I might finally get the gift of sleep.
Waiting outside for a tour, I can’t help but think the Icehotel looks like a giant Hostess Sno Ball. “We came all the way here for this?” I complain as our guide, dressed in a fanciful silver cape, gives a brief history. Each year since 1990, a team of artists has made the pilgrimage here, to the town of Jukkasjärvi, to transform huge blocks of ice harvested from the Torne River into something both memorable and evanescent. Come spring, when the midnight sun draws near, the Icehotel melts away, returning to its source.
While the hotel and an adjacent church are made entirely of snow and ice, there are also heated cabins and chalets and two restaurants. (Most people spend one night in the hotel and another night or two in the warm accommodations.) Entering through an automatic door, our guide leads us past the Absolut Icebar—sponsored by the vodkamaker—and into the main hallway. There a stunning ice chandelier dangles above four petal-shaped chairs. Nothing about the exterior prepared me for this. The guest rooms, off several long corridors, are the frozen equivalent of Fabergé eggs, each one unique and exquisite.
I like the suite styled as an English gentlemen’s club, with its overstuffed-looking ice sofa and glowing fireplace, but not the Bubbleboil Swamp Room, with its giant pulsing test tubes. The one that truly terrifies me, however, is the Cyclic Vortex which, according to the artists, represents the circle of life, from seed to rebirth. On a wall above the bed, there’s a red, glowing, seemingly vast hole. I imagine being sucked into it and, like Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey, waking up the next morning as a fetus. Would I still be able to go on the reindeer ride we’ve scheduled?
Meanwhile, we sign up for a dogsled excursion into the wilderness. Although it is only 2 p.m., it’s already getting dark. The region is experiencing a warm spell, which means that instead of 15 below zero, it’s 15 above. Still, it is cold. Before taking our places on the sleds, we have to wait for the drivers to untangle 40 Huskies. Sled dogs like to run, and when they’re not they bark and jump all over one another. It’s quite a show.
Our Norwegian driver has brought along his eight-year-old daughter, who is piloting the sled she received last year for Christmas. With her two little Huskies she rides beside us, her cheeks flushed pink. Despite the frigid weather, the whole experience is so exhilarating that for the rest of the ride I am that little girl.
That night we have dinner at the Icehotel Restaurant, which is inside a simple wooden building across the street. The all-white space is pretty, with orchids in the windows, but not very festive. Then I look outside at the falling snow and realize that anything more would be overkill. Nature, in its dazzling simplicity, is the main attraction. The food, too, is a product of the landscape. I don’t eat red meat, but I’m delighted with the fresh Arctic char and the delicious cloudberries and lingonberries from the nearby forest. I’m in heaven—until the waiter takes my husband’s order.
“I’ll have the fillet of reindeer,” he says.
“You’re ordering reindeer?” I ask. “On Christmas Eve?”
“It’s the specialty.”
The waiter nods. “We eat everything: the blood, intestines, stomach, hooves,” he says.
“Nothing goes to waste.”
When the dish arrives, Lee raves about it while I try not to look. The good news is that I’ve finally seen a reindeer. Unfortunately it’s on a plate with shiitake mushrooms and orange-braised onions.
After dinner we watch It’s a Wonderful Life (with Swedish subtitles) in the warm Kaamos Room we’ve booked. At 11 p.m. we walk over to the Icehotel, hoping to see the spectacular northern lights along the way, but nature doesn’t cooperate. When we pick up our sleeping bags, the man behind the desk explains that after we return them in the morning, we’ll be eligible for a diploma stating we’ve spent a night in the Icehotel.
There are 88 people staying here tonight, but we’re the only creatures still stirring. The lights are dim and it’s spooky. When we finally find our room, I’m relieved it’s not Bubbleboil Swamp but Arctic Contrast, created by an Irish artist named Dave Ruane. Behind our bed is a carving of the midnight sun; in front is Ruane’s version of the northern lights. They’re blinking. Brightly. We unfurl our sleeping bags and place them on the reindeer pelts covering the ice bed. Stripping down to our thermal underwear, we jump in and zip up. I say good night and then, miraculously, fall asleep. When I wake up, I ask Lee for the time.
“It’s 11:30,” he says.
“In the morning? Wow!”
“11:30 p.m. You were asleep for five minutes.”
I try to relax by staring at Ruane’s northern lights. Though the temperature in the hotel is a constant 20 degrees, Lee complains that his sleeping bag is hot and sticks his arms out. In a few minutes he’s asleep—and snoring. I want to nudge him, but he’s too far away. The northern lights are beginning to drive me crazy. I slither farther down into my bag, and it smells weird. What if I smother to death? I practice deep breathing.
Finally I call out, “Lee, Lee, we have to get out of here. We’ve got to…escape!”
“Huh?” he says groggily. “You mean we have to put on our clothes and leave?”
“We don’t have to get dressed,” I answer. “We can hop out in our sleeping bags.”
I try hopping but don’t get very far. In fact, I crash into the midnight sun and nearly cause an avalanche.
“This is ridiculous,” Lee says.
We throw on our clothes and dutifully return our sleeping bags to the man behind the desk. “You don’t have to tell me,” I say. “No diploma.”
On Christmas morning we wake up to a brilliant salmon-colored sky. After a carol service at the Ice Church, we take a walk down a deserted snowy road, winding up at a little wooden church built in 1608. That afternoon we go on a snowmobile safari to sample Sami culture. The aboriginal people of Lapland, the Sami once made their living as reindeer herders but now work mainly in mining or tourism. Our guide, Par-Stefan, is dressed in traditional costume—a navy tunic with leather pants and shoes made of reindeer hide. With his pale eyes and delicate features, he could be Legolas in The Lord of the Rings.
We head into the woods just as the light is growing dim. There are 14 of us, ranging in age from eight to 80. It takes about a half hour to reach the Sami campsite, where there are several kotas, which are tepeelike homes. I’m listening to Par-Stefan describe how the nomadic Sami would dismantle their kotas and carry them when I notice a dozen hulking forms silhouetted against the snow. Reindeer!
Standing next to the corral, Par-Stefan tells us how reindeer have traditionally provided the Sami with food and clothing, their bones used for tools and crafts. “We live close to the earth,” he says. I ask him if he has difficulty sleeping with winter’s long polar nights and summer’s midnight sun. He tells me it isn’t a problem. When it’s dark for 20 hours a day, he sleeps about ten hours a night. When it’s light most of the time, he sleeps maybe four or five hours. It is all about keeping in rhythm with nature.
The highlight of our trip comes when we try raidu, or reindeer-sled driving. I had pictured sitting in a sleigh, covered in a fur wrap, like something out of Currier & Ives, but the sleds are literally sleds. We have to kneel on them—alone. These reindeer aren’t tiny either. They weigh about 400 pounds and stand nearly five feet tall, with massive fur-covered antlers. Though I realize this is probably the Sami equivalent of a pony ride, in the dark it’s scary.
I ask for a slow reindeer and Par-Stefan gives me one that looks comatose. Lee goes first, with Par-Stefan running alongside shouting “giddyap” in Sami. When it’s my turn, I kneel and grab the reins.
We’re going at a comfortable clip when my husband snaps a picture of me. The flash spooks my reindeer and it tries to overtake Lee’s sled. I hope my reindeer has good spatial judgment because a tree is coming up and I’m not sure there’s space for its antlers between the tree and Lee’s sled. I scream, forcing Lee to take heroic action. Turning around, he smacks my reindeer on the snout, yelling “Slow down!” The animal, in response, begins running for its life.
Suddenly I’m in the chariot race from Ben-Hur, my sled bumping Lee’s. Finally my reindeer pulls ahead and we’re practically flying through the air. In fact, we’re dashing away. And guess what? I’m having so much fun I can’t believe it. Then we begin to slow down. Spotting Par-Stefan, the reindeer stops precisely at the finish line. Climbing off the sled I pat one of its furry antlers, and I swear the animal winks at me.
That night I get a full eight hours of sleep. And the next night. Nine months later I’m still sleeping better than ever.
The Sami have 40 words for reindeer. I, on the other hand, have only two: