Now Is The Time To Hygge Up Your Holidays
Everything you need to know about the Danish art of cosiness (including how to say it correctly).
No one is entirely sure how it happened. Perhaps the world has a particular sickness that only cardamom buns and lambswool-lined footwear can cure? Perhaps Thor had a word with Odin? Perhaps lifestyle publishers just tend to latch onto one idea? But for 2016, the holiday season will be all about hygge.
From The Little Book Of Hygge: The Danish Way To Live Well to The Art Of Hygge: How To Bring Danish Cosiness Into Your Life, the bookshops are filled with all things hyggelig. After sepulchral murder dramas and 13-course birch sap-tasting menus, it’s the latest export from the Happiest Country on Earth™ to have the other members of the OECD casting envious glances.
Hygge, so they say, was first documented in 19th-century Denmark. The noun (pronounced “HOO-guh”) and its derived adjective hyggelig (“HOO-gly”) are distantly related to the English word hug. To a Dane, they conjure all things cosy, convivial, bonhomous and snuggly, only in a grown-up, aesthetically pleasing, candlelit Scandinavian way – as opposed to, for example, eating chocolate-covered pretzels in a onesie in front of Netflix.
As Danish actress-turned-author Ms Marie Tourell Søderberg puts it in the sparkly Hygge: The Danish Art Of Happiness (Penguin): “Danes would be lost without the word hygge. They tell each other how much they are looking forward to hygge together, they point out how hyggelig a situation is while they are hygging, and afterwards they like to talk about what a great hygge time they have had together.”
Hygge is about stripping away the anxieties of modern living and embracing the simple things that have nothing to do with wealth or status
However, according to Ms Signe Johansen, Norwegian author of How To Hygge: The Secrets Of Nordic Living (Bluebird), the concept (like the Vikings) is not Danish at all. “Hygge is actually Norwegian,” she informs me. “It’s an essential part of our culture. But Norwegians are not as good at marketing ourselves as the Danish.”
She feels it speaks to a deep-rooted need to escape from the stresses and anxieties of modern life. “If mindfulness is about the self and looking inward, hygge is about being sociable and looking outward,” she says. “It’s about stripping away the anxieties of modern living and embracing the simple things that have nothing to do with wealth or status. In a hectic age of rapid consumerism and traumatic news events, it’s a valuable antidote.”
Still, as Ms Johansen concedes, it’s really a pan-Nordic concept, a bit like social democracy, depressing films and making love on bear-skin rugs in front of roaring fires. The Swedes call it mys (pronounced “moose”) or mysig. The Germans have a similar thing called gemütlichkeit (literally, “feeliness”).
As for the English-speakers, we don’t have a catch-all term – the best Google Translate can do is “fun” – but crumpets and tea after a long walk with friends captures the essence. Or maybe just the word “Christmassy”? For if there’s a time when hygge really ought to come into its own – but so rarely does – it’s Christmas. So with this in mind, I asked the Nordic experts what the rest of us can do to make the festive season more hyggelig.
01. SLOW DOWN
“There’s a big contrast between English-speaking countries and the Nordic countries when it comes to Christmas,” says Ms Johannson. “Christmas in London is this very frenetic and stressful experience for a lot of people. You put all of the focus on one day, you have all the family round, and you cook an incredibly elaborate meal. When I was growing up in Norway, we had this whole season of small festivities, which started with advent and went on until after the New Year.”
So, basically, the idea is to party little and often, maybe beginning with a few glasses of aquavit on St Lucy’s Day on 13 December and going on until your Epiphany party on 6 January, where you build Lego to the strains of Mr Todd Terje’s It’s Album Time. Did you know that before Queen Victoria made joylessness and Englishness synonymous, the English used to keep their Christmas decorations up until spring just to spread a bit of joy through the bleak midwinter?
“Hygge might be a Danish thing, but I feel we should kill the myth that Denmark is some sort of paradise,” says Ms Soderberg. And when you consider her unhappy countrymen – Messrs Lars von Trier, Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen – you can see what she means.
“Happiness is not an exotic thing, it is something you can find if you look in your own yard. The important thing is to find out what’s hyggelig in your own life. It looks different in every country but the essence is the same.” The most crucial aspect of hygge is to be with the people who make you smile: your loved one, your family, your kith, your kin.
“Hygge is togetherness. You can hygge with candles or with coffee, and you can have a hyggelig meal, but the most important thing is to share it. It’s when you’re just so happy to be with the people who you’re with.” If that means fleeing your family’s ritualistic vibe-kills and spending time with people you actually like, so be it. You have to find your own hygge.
03. EAT A LOT
Never mind the turkey. And certainly don’t bother trying to cook a three-course menu for 23 ungrateful family members. What you want is a smorgasbord.
“You can have Swedish meatballs, roast pork, Norwegian-style cod, pickles, winter salads, root vegetables – whatever’s available seasonally and locally,” says Ms Johansen. “The emphasis is on sharing, conviviality, and making things low-stress for the cook.”
As with partying, it makes sense to eat little and often, too. As Mr Magnus Nilsson – the head chef of Fäviken in the north of Sweden – explains in his highly covetable The Nordic Cook Book, traditionally, northern Scandinavian farm workers would put in epic shifts in the summer to take advantage of the light – 16-hour days of hard physical toil, necessitating five-to-seven meals – before salting, fermenting and pickling things for the winter when leaving the home was an ordeal.
The modern-day inheritance is fika, which inserts numerous little snack points into the Swedish working day and provides innumerable opportunities for mys (ie, Swedish hygge). And you certainly shouldn’t feel bad about what you eat. Ms Johansen sees hygge-mania in part as a reaction against the clean-eating trend.
“It’s so selfish and joyless, this idea that you must be constantly anxious about what you’re eating,” she says. “We love our carbs. We also recognise that so much of the goodness in food is how it makes you feel.”
04. ADJUST THE LIGHTING
When you’re marooned indoors by 7ft snowdrifts, you want your home to be a nice place to be, says Ms Johansen. “We’re homebodies – we don’t suffer from a sense of Fomo, as we’ve created spaces that we want to spend time in, she says.
“The optics are often reduced to cocoa by candlelight, but that’s a very twee version of hygge. We’re very drawn to nature across the region, so our interior design culture reflects that. A lot of natural materials: wood, leather, wool, stone and glass. We love plants and twigs.”
It’s vital. “You want a variety of lights – not just one big light in the room, but a lot of softer lights,” says Ms Johansen. “And candles are essential. We light them on any occasion, not just at Christmas. Sometimes, if it’s a gloomy morning and I’m working at my desk, I’ll light one.”
And while it’s anti-materialistic, it’s also about appreciating “the things that have shaped us as a people stem from a deep-rooted pragmatism,” Ms Johansen adds. “The region was very poor for a long time, so we’ve always had to make the most of limited resources. It’s an old-fashioned spirit of self-sufficiency: not wasting things, building our homes and furniture to last. Our grandparents bought furniture and clothes and electrical goods to last – it’s the opposite of wearing a pair of Primark jeans then throwing them away five minutes later.”
05. GET OUTSIDE
“Hygge is not gratuitous indulgence,” says Ms Johansen. “You’d go insane if you spent your whole life in slippers! You have to earn your hygge.” In other words, the holidays will be all the happier if you make the minor effort to scrape yourself from the sofa and go for a constitutional. Norwegians are a particularly outdoorsy. If you’ve ever been to Norway in mid-wintertime, you’ll have noted the way they leave their babies outside in prams even when it’s -20ºC, just so they get used to the cold (and appreciate their hygge all the more). However, as Ms Soderberg says, hygge is “not just an indoors thing. You can hygge outdoors as well. You can hygge in summertime on the beach.” So remember kids, hygge is for life, not just for Christmas.
Illustrations by Mr Pete Gamlen