Photos by James Davies
Hygge (roughly pronounced hö-geh, though with a little more “oo” on that umlauted o) is a Danish word that defies English translation. Its closest Anglo analogue is probably cozy, but that doesn’t fully capture what hygge is all about.
Hygge is a feeling, a condition, but Danes tend to define it more by action and situation than abstractions. Hygge is the soft, warm glow of candlelight in the darkness of a winter night. Hygge is sharing a glass of wine, a nice beer, some of your favorite sweets and breads at twilight on the patio in summer. Hygge is playing a Chopin nocturne on the piano while it snows at dusk. Hygge is quiet, warm conversation with dear friends or family members. Hygge is the smell of bread baking on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Hygge is melting into your favorite chair at home after work with soft music in the background and a fire crackling in the fireplace while the rest of your family quietly goes about the offices of their day’s end.
For Danes, Christmas is the high season of hygge. For me, hygge happened on Christmas Eve at my Danish grandparents’ house, with the women of the family (okay, it was the 1960s) sending the warm smells of dinner wafting from the kitchen, the men laughing in the living room over bottles of Tuborg Beer or shots of akvavit, the fat colorful bulbs of the Christmas tree providing the only soft glow of light, the muffled sounds of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” floating from a hidden radio somewhere, all bulwarks against the coldest, darkest, sparkling winter night outside. That’s hygge.
We humans have a brilliant capacity to seek experience via the imagination. If I want to transport myself to summer in northern Minnesota in January, I read one of Sigurd Olson’s North Woods essays. If I want to relive the beauty and thrill of attending the live performance of Puccini’s La Boheme earlier this year, I put on a CD recording. If I want to think fondly of the house I grew up in on Shaw Street in Rockford, Illinois, I look through old photo albums. If I want to visit Japan in the Taishō period of a hundred years ago, I read Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow.
In the spirit of hygge and my Danish heritage I have a string of C7 Christmas lights hanging from the floor lamp next to my reading chair in my home office. Sometimes late at night, even if it’s May, I’ll turn off the lamp and plug those red, green, blue and orange hygge bulbs in, sending that warm glimmer across the pages of my book. Now and then, if I feel like it, when a July late afternoon draws long at work, I’ll call up a YouTube video of the Vienna Boys Choir singing “Stille Nacht.” And if a lazy September Saturday afternoon turns gloomy with clouds, maybe I’ll just go ahead and read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or put Alastair Sim’s Scrooge on the DVD player.
So as you start hoeing that rich, black dirt and planting that spinach and those snapdragons in your backyard garden this April, and as you head out to the ballpark for your first baseball game, go ahead and go wherever else you’d like in your imagination. It’s OK. And let me just say to you—Merry Christmas!
Thomas Dean just might roast some chestnuts over an open fire.