“’Hygge’ does not translate into English. It is both an abstract noun and a verb, usually used to denote spending time with friends and family and having a laugh.”
Winters in Denmark can be very long, lasting from early November to March, and are often snowy. The Danes cope with these harsh winters through their unique concept of hygge (pronounced “hue-guh”). Thought to be the origin of the word “hug” in English, it is often translated as “cosiness”. This is neither adequate nor accurate. It is an abstract term denoting atmosphere, a feeling of warmth and contentment, not to do with material things but more a connection with the people around you.
The Hygge Hype
“[…]many people are now sceptical of it being an essential part of Danish culture, and not just commercialism at its sneakiest.”
Readers are possibly already sick of the word hygge, which has been claimed by the hipsters of Ireland and the UK and used to sell countless books this year. Journalists of both the Guardian and the Irish Times have called it “bullshit” and “a conspiracy”, and many people are now sceptical of it being an essential part of Danish culture, and not just commercialism at its sneakiest.
As a part-Dane, when I wandered into Hodges Figgis and saw an entire section of books on hygge, I was surprised and a little suspicious. How did a concept so unique to Danish culture find its way across the sea? I scanned the names of the authors and found that very few of them looked Scandinavian. This aroused my suspicion even further because, as I said and as any Dane will tell you, hygge does not translate into English. It is usually used to denote spending time with friends and family, sharing a laugh or watching TV together.
I was once eating out with my family when the waiter came over, lit the tea lights on the table and said “Now that brings a bit more hygge, doesn’t it?” The adjective hyggelig (pronounced “hue-guh-ly”) is how you would describe a dinner party or a holiday at a friend’s house.
I had a flick through some of these books, filled with tips for making a house hyggelig and recipes for ginger cake. Many of them seemed to have a bizarre fascination with scented candles. While I found this didn’t fit with the definition of it being a feeling and an atmosphere, I have to admit there is something about the way you create your environment that makes it hyggelig.
Much of it is to do with light – whether it’s a string of fairy lights or tea lights on a table, any soft warm glow is perfect for winter nights when it’s cold outside. Things like having warm blankets or rugs made from natural materials, along with warm socks, just make you feel good.
The Irish hygge
“Irish people have the same instinct of wanting to be content and cosy in the wet winters. The Danes just found a word that sums that up”
The reason some publications are bitter about this hype over the word hygge is because, once again, the Scandinavians seem to be portrayed as the perfect culture, when in fact Irish people have their own version of hygge and are pretty good at it too. Here it means copious amounts of tea (and biscuits), open fires while it’s raining outside, sitting in a warm pub with your friends while listening to live music, wearing ridiculous Christmas jumpers that not only keep you warm but make people smile as well, blasting Christmas FM while you’re making mince pies, and just in general having the craic.
Sarah, an Irish student who went on Erasmus in Denmark last year, described the main difference between the ways the Irish and the Danes cope with the winter as the fact that “the weather (even though it was similar enough to Ireland) didn’t really influence people’s mood in Denmark […] People in Dublin in the rain or cold just look a bit miserable, don’t they? With their umbrellas and just a general sadness or grumpiness or something, like on the Dart in the winter there’s just a ‘down’ atmosphere. But I didn’t find that in Denmark at all. I suppose people just get on with it! If it rains? Raincoat. If it snows? Snow boots […] I guess the attitude made the seasons different.”
She summed up her own experience of hygge as follows: “I think part of the whole hygge thing is just the Danes’ happy-go-lucky atmosphere to be honest. We all just felt completely comfortable in each other’s company and just so happy to be in that moment […] It was just the comfort in your own skin and in other people’s company.”
A cosy Christmas
“Even though throughout the entire run-up to Christmas, people are constantly partying with colleagues and friends, the whole of the Christmas week is family time.”
Right now millions of Danes are burning down their advent candles, drinking Gløgg (Danish mulled wine), putting cloves in oranges and hanging them around the house, making brunkager (spiced Christmas biscuits) and Christmas decorations, and counting down the days until Christmas. They are already a couple of months into the long, dark winter, and to battle the cold outside they have a very Danish way of spreading warmth in the home, and counting down the days until December 24.
The countdown begins on the first although, like in Ireland, shops begin the commercial assault of an abundance of Christmas products in early November. Many Danish parents make their own advent calendars and individually wrap 24 small presents for their children. December 1 is also the day the aforementioned advent candle comes out. It has the numbers 1 to 24 going down the length of the candle, and is lit every day, so families can watch the days melt away.
There is also an advent calendar on TV and each evening until Christmas Eve; the family sits down together and watches one episode. The narrative usually follows elves who are preparing for Christmas. All of this helps to make the cold and dark December days warm and full of hygge.
Although December 25 is still referred to as Christmas Day in Danish, the real celebration takes place on Christmas Eve , as is common in many other European countries. There is also a ‘mini Christmas Eve’ on December 23. Even though throughout the entire run-up to Christmas, people are constantly partying with colleagues and friends, the whole of the Christmas week is family time.
On Christmas Eve, the real celebrations kick off with a huge family meal, including a goose, a pot of red cabbage, potatoes and rice pudding to finish. Then you dance around the Christmas tree, which some families still decorate with real burning candles and paper hearts (and a fire extinguisher nearby). Later that evening, the house is visited by the Juleman (the Christmas Man AKA Santa).
Students can earn extra money by renting themselves out as a Juleman who will come to your house and surprise the children; their ads often read “sober Juleman for hire”. Once Santa has called, gifts are exchanged. The celebrations continue for the next couple of days, leaving barely enough time to recover before New Year’s Eve.
Hygge is an essential part of Danish winters but it is relevant the whole year-round. It is deeply ingrained in each and every Dane. Irish people have the same instinct of wanting to be content and cosy in the wet winters. The Danes just found a word that sums that up: hygge.