Give Me A Hygge?

The Danes Can Teach Us A Thing Or Two About Surviving Winter.

Scandinavians know a lot about the winter. And about the cold. And, come to think of it, about the dark. After all during winter the sun leaves the Nordic skies around mid-afternoon and doesn't return until mid-morning! So it's little surprise that they are so skilled at dealing with it. Because despite the virtual absence of sunlight from about October to March (okay, that may be a slight exaggeration), Scandinavian countries, in particular Denmark, just don't feel dull or depressing - even in the depths of the northern winter. They even have a word for their antidote: hygge (pronounced a bit like who-gah). But to describe hygge, and what it represents, is not easy. There's certainly no single English language word that adequately matches it. Begin with coziness, add a touch of security, well-being, company, warmth, relaxation and you might begin to get there. It's one of those things you really need to experience to understand. Having visited Scandinavia often I knew about the concept of hygge but I'd usually visited in late Spring when the lilac trees were in full bloom and the days are long and sun-filled. It wasn't until I spent several December days in Copenhagen that I truly understood it. No-one who's spent their life in the UK could possibly imagine the cold. I've been as cold in Ontario or Massachusetts but never in Europe. 

Enjoying the hygge in a restaurant at Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens

To begin with the wind over the flat landscape drives bursts of frozen air right into your face and body and manages to find a way through even the tiniest gap in your clothing.  Even out of the wind the frigidity of the air is remarkable. So it's understandable that an important part of hygge is warmth. Most Brits who consider themselves 'northerners' generally believe that they are more hardy, more rugged and better able to cope with the rigours of a British winter than their southern brethren. Now I'm not trying to promote the 'southern softie' stereotype, but I have found this to be, for the most part, true. This may simply be because the climate 'Up North' is harsher than that in the south and so Northerners are more used to dealing with it. But I have another theory. I wonder whether we (and yes, I must come clean here - those of us in Derbyshire do consider we are Northern)  aren't more suited to the winter because of our Scandinavian background? 

After all the same Vikings who inhabited Scandinavia also invaded and settled in our part of the UK. We might be British through and through, but we have more than a few similarities with our Nordic friends. Certainly, people who live in cities are generally more adversely affected (or at least think they are) by winter conditions than those who live in the country. And if the recent bad winters have taught us anything, it's that the further south and the more urban we become, the more we dislike winter.

Whatever the real reasons, we have much to learn from our Danish, Swedish and Norwegian cousins. And a trip to Scandinavia during winter is a real eye opener. Unless you happen to be wearing a full snow suit with furry mittens, boots and hat, by far the best way to experience Danish hygge is to go inside.


It's easy to bring Scandi-style hygge home!

 Even if your only view of a Danish sitting room is through a candlelit window, with your nose pressed hopefully against the glass, offices, shops and restaurants all offer a similar experience. Fires are lit, candles glow and, in the latter, warming and comforting food and drink are on offer. And candlelight is certainly key to achieving hygge.  With what seems like a total disregard to health and safety rules, shops and restaurants generally have candles burning on their doorsteps, while office workers light candles on their desks. In fact the Danish obsession with candles knows no bounds. Lit candles appear on windowsills, at checkouts, on shelves, on the floor, in hotel lobbies, beside lifts and on every table in every restaurant. Not just sweet little tealights, or elegant taper candles but large, hunky, pillar candles in every imaginable shade and shape and size.  And while I wouldn't advocate such widespread use of candles in a country as used to health and safety rules as the UK (and therefore unused to even mild peril!), and particularly in places where animals and children run loose, there is something so welcoming about candles. And the Danes in particular seem to be able to do things we Brits just daren't without risking harm. They even light candles in their Christmas trees. Yes, real candles, with flames. And, yes, in real trees cut from a forest. Of course, even someone as hygge-enthusiastic as me wouldn't risk that, but the Danes seem to know how to do it safely. They seem to know how to drink heavily too. I've seen elderly ladies taking a glass of Chardonnay with their breakfasts and I've watched the Nyhavn area of Copenhagen littered with drinkers seemingly in situ from Friday evening to Sunday night. Considering the amount of beer they get through, they make the most remarkably affable drunks. And come Monday morning there's not a stray can or empty bottle to be seen. It's a pity some of the revellers over here can't follow suit. Alcohol, of course, can play an important role in hygge. Trust me when I say that just a single sip of Danish akavit is enough to warm the cockles of your heart for a good few hours!

But hygge isn't just about keeping warm, lighting candles and drinking alcohol. It's also about spending time and sharing food with loved ones. And it's an immensely positive concept. It's about happiness, contentment and joy. And we don't need to live amongst the reindeer to take advantage of it. (Okay, the Danes don't really live among the reindeer either, but surely you'll forgive me a little cultural stereotyping for once?). We can light a fire (or at least crank up the central heating). We can light a few candles, invite a few friends round. Open a bottle of wine (see, I'm not exactly asking you to stretch yourself, now am I?). Maybe even whip up a casserole. And embrace hygge with all our hearts. Because there are huge benefits to doing this. Yes, hygge offers a physical barrier against the cold, the dark, the elements. But it also offers a psychological barrier against the fast pace, the intensity and the stress of the outside world. And surely that's something we can all appreciate?