We all know this Christmas, and this winter season in general, will be different than we're used to. We can't gather in groups, we can't eat inside restaurants, we are limited on travel, and we can't do a lot of the holiday traditions we would like to.
But, there is a lot we still can do to make this season special! A lot of our COVID adaptations are things that the Danes do even in "normal" times! So I decided to call on my favorite Dane herself, Hanne Larson, to help us Americans understand the beautiful Danish concept of hygge.
So you don't go through this whole article reading the word as "hi-gee", here's Hanne graciously showing us how to say this word:
You may or may not have heard of hygge (or the adjective form, hyggelit), because it's becoming more of a trend in our culture right now, for good reason. But chances are if you've heard of it and you're American, you probably don't understand all of the meaning of hygge (myself included). Enjoy Hanne's wisdom, and let's learn together how we can make this time feel good and special in its own way.
Alex: Can you define hygge?
Hanne: Hygge is just so part of the Danish language. Everybody knows what hygge is, but it’s very difficult to describe. But we use it all the time.
Hygge is about the atmosphere you create, in the feeling of togetherness and connection, and it's also about creating a space of comfort and coziness. It may include a cup of coffee or tea and candlelight.
One of the aspects is a feel good connection. [For example,] when I was home [in Denmark] last December, downtown Copenhagen I ran into one of the care workers who took care of my dad [before he passed]. We were walking down the street and there she was. We just had this little connection. At the same time, we both said that was so hyggelit. It was so feel good!
[In another context,] one of the cookbooks I have talks a little about hygge. You can be at a very elegant dinner that's beautiful, extravagant and 4 courses, and that doesn’t make it hyggelit. But you can go to something like that have have a conversation with someone that feels connecting and walk away and say that was hyggelit.
It’s not necessarily something you always create but you can create it.
When I was in high school (in Denmark), the way I would spend time with my friends would be that we would go to each others’ house and have tea and light candles and talk. That’s just instinctively hygge. It’s both a verb and an adjective. We would say “let’s hygge” - let’s connect. Let’s have atmosphere. And in those situations it has to do with lighting and candles.
(At this point in the interview, Hanne's phone is about to die so she has to move to a new spot next to her charger. This is very sad for her because the spot is less hyggelit, so she brings a candle and her coffee over to try and bring some hygge to this new spot).
Right after high school I was working at a daycare center. Sometimes I’d have to open at 6am. [On those days,] on my bike ride to work, I would stop at the bakery and get fresh baked goods. [First thing in the morning,] we would sit down with the kids around the table [with the baked goods]. They were 2, 3, 4 year olds, and we would sit around and hygge. We would have cozy time in the mornings. Kids in Denmark grow up that that’s just part of what you do. And you usually light candles. Hygge is often associated with wintertime, especially in Denmark because it’s so dark, and you get up in the morning and light your candles.
A: What’s the biggest misconception about hygge? (other than how to say it)
H: That it can be reduced to “cozy” because it’s so much more than that. Cozy is part of it, but it doesn't have to be part of it. It could just be you and I, or like connecting with that woman on the street. We both just knew that [our crossing paths] felt connecting and felt good and instinctively we know that was hyggelit.
Another misconception is that it’s a woman thing. It’s so not.
(Here I would like to add my own story: When I visited Denmark with Hanne and her family, Hanne's adult nephew, Martin, was going to meet up with my husband and a couple other guys. When discussing if they should ride together or just meet where they were going, Martin said it would be nicer to ride together because it would be more hyggelit. I remember it struck me that a grown man would say something so explicitly soft and heart warming.)
A: Why is Christmas so hyggelit?
H: Because of the darkness. All of the candles - candles are such a big part, with advent and everything else [in Denmark] is candlelight at Christmas. It’s the perfect time for that because it’s dark til 9am and dark again at 4. It’s the perfect time to create cozy feelings. And also because [Christmas] is a lot of times when you make a point of visiting together.
Also when I worked at the daycare center - in Denmark you have a 15 minute break for mid morning coffee, then your lunch break, then an afternoon coffee break. And the break room is cozy. People sit down, light a candle, have coffee or tea together. At Christmastime you make it more special with some baked goods.
It’s so in the culture. There’s this saying - the reason Denmark was never in a war is because they take too many coffee breaks. They fought with the Germans for a half hour in WWII, but then they took too many coffee breaks.
When I first came here [to the US), I didn’t understand why people liked to use paper plates. Hygge is like a really pretty cup, a nice plate, arranging things beautifully. Even a little bit of cookies put on a plate. It creates “oh, I feel special”. A paper plate just doesn’t create hygge.
A: How can one incorporate hygge into their lives this Christmas?
H: Life has slowed down a little bit. It’s a good time to incorporate little habits. You may have more time in the mornings to sit. Light a candle, take that little time before you turn on all the lights.
Take that time with whoever you live with to sit together, light a candle. If you have an advent wreath, don’t just light it on Sundays. Light it during the week. It sounds like I’m making it all about candlelight but sometimes you have to create a feeling and atmosphere of coziness. [My husband and I] make the point to put a couple cookies out.
Let’s not just walk around with our coffee cups. In Denmark, you sit down and have coffee. You don’t fill your mug and walk around and do everything you would normally do and hope it doesn’t get cold. If you have that time, sit and enjoy it. Pick out your most perfect cup. Take the time to think about which one makes me feel special, gives me extra good feelings.
Going for a walk can be hyggelit. Especially if you just go for a walk and say "I’m just going to look at the special things people have done in their windows".
COVID is perfect for this. It’s introducing an interruption. People say Christmas is a rat race, this year you have an excuse for not making it a rat race.
A: How could hygge improve this winter for people?
H: Hygge is kind of just leaning into relationships, quiet, feel good. Sometimes we don’t even notice [these things]. We don’t even take the time to think about what makes us feel good.
[For example,] we’re supposed to get a snowstorm tonight and we can shift the thinking from "oh no we’re going to get dumped on" to "there’s nothing more hyggelit than sitting inside and watching the snow fall". Even you and Eric can sit on the couch and look outside at the snowflakes.
Part of hygge us bundling up. In Denmark when we went last December, all the restaurants have outdoor seating in the wintertime with big blankets and heaters. It’s so raw and cold but everyone is sitting there with their big stuff on. [Instead of being sad about eating outside at restaurants,] we can realize this is actually kind of enjoyable.
There you have it. Now you know quite a bit more about hygge!
The power of your mind - reframing your thinking and adjusting expectations - truly has so much power, especially on this strange holiday season. I really hope learning about hygge can help you savor the time you have with your family, appreciate the warmth and comfort of your home, and seek out chances to start a new habit or Christmas tradition. That is how me and my family are approaching this season: