When the darkness begins around 3pm and the snowy cold settles onto the landscape like a cushion; muffling sound, making the world seem almost silent . . . That’s when you begin to get a sense of it.
Walking down narrow streets with wooly scarves bundled so high around your neck, you have to tuck your mittened fingers into it and pull it down just to see. And when your eyes adjust to the light, you make your way up to the little porch lit by candle lanterns and dusted in the corners with soft, powdery snow.
You’re led inside where a few people bask in front of the fire. Comfortable on throw pillows, their hands wrapped around steaming mugs, they laugh together at the end of a story and turn to face you just as you walk in. Even though you don’t really know anyone — they make you feel like you do.
That’s when you suddenly understand the essence of the word HYGGE.
Language offers a unique glimpse into a culture’s value and character. The word SERENDIPITY is nearly impossible to translate from English, but it so perfectly expresses the surprise and wonder of the happy accident. And oh how we cherish serendipitous events in our American culture!
Similarly, the Danish word Hygge (pronounced Hew-gah) only roughly translates to mean something along the lines of warm coziness. From Norwegian, it means ‘well-being’. But, hygge describes much more than these things. In fact, it pretty much encapsulates Scandinavian tradition.
“We have very long, dark and cold winters in Norway,” explains Rita, a nurse from Oslo.
“Our culture had to find ways of surviving these extreme conditions, and I don’t mean basic survival. . . I mean getting through long, dark winters without sinking into terrible depression. This, I think, is why we have hygge.”
So hygge embraces everything from conviviality to coziness — good conversation in the glow of flickering candlelight, the comforting smell of buttery bread intermingled with the sweet smoke from the fireplace.
Hygge is all this, but going deeper, it is the tradition of bringing people together to enjoy life. Hygge is magically transforming a potentially bleak situation into one of intimacy, fellowship and joy.
“It’s very much about the emotion,” Rita explains. “We do things to care for ourselves and for each other, and not just in wintertime”.
But, of course, the colder months and the holidays lend themselves to hygge.
“Just invite people over and don’t worry about tidying up or making the table perfect. You just want to make people comfortable, and that means you being comfortable too. You can’t really rush about and expect hygge.”
So what’s the secret?
Rita says that you can embrace hygge by keeping things simple; just add more soft lighting, candles, pillows, warm and easy-to-make foods that add to a soothing, relaxed atmosphere. It’s celebrating togetherness the easy way. Enjoy yourself, listen to sweet music, laugh with your friends, bundle up in your bulkiest sweater and rest.
Maybe a single word really can sum-up the essence of a culture.
And, if the tradition of hygge can help explain why Scandinavian countries boast the happiest and most successful populations, then maybe those of us from other cultures could learn a little from this enduring and heart-warming way of life.