My friend Laura Collins posted a link last week to an article about the Danish concept of hygge [pronounced something like HYU-gah]. This was a new concept to me... which is crazy, really. I mean, Dana means "the Dane," for heaven's sake!
There's no English equivalent, but loosely translated, hygge refers to a cozy sense of togetherness and well-being. (It's fitting that hygge autocorrects to "hugged" on my phone.)
Hygge is big this time of year, but it can be cultivated anytime. From the article:
"In other languages the word for hygge or coziness is more a physical thing, and hygge is more a mental thing," explains Lotte Hansen, a library science student from Aalborg, Denmark, who's interning at the Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn, Iowa. "It's like a feeling, and it's big at Christmastime. The candles, the food, being with your family."
"It's not only Christmas, though," she adds, noting hygge is a pervasive, year-round spirit. "It's like a mood you have. We can see hygge in many things, in many situations."
This flexibility of hygge is a major reason why English words like "cozy" don't do it justice. "Coziness relates to physical surroundings — a jersey can be cozy, or a warm bed — whereas hygge has more to do with people's behavior toward each other," writes author Helen Dyrbye in "Xenophobe's Guide to the Danes." "It is the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality and contentment rolled into one."
This is an important distinction. When I first read about hygge I got it right away---it's a Christmas feeling, but also a Sabbath feeling. I have felt that warm sense of rightness during our family's Sabbath time together, especially when we stick close to home. Day-long Sabbaths are now much harder to come by than they were when I was writing the book. A few hours here and there are the best we can manage. Still, I occasionally catch glimpses of holy hygge.
Holiday hygge can be elusive if family relations are strained, there's an empty chair at the table, or people are so stressed trying to manufacture faux hygge that they miss the conviviality and contentment that's at the heart of the thing. I also see how Christmas-oriented marketing can convince us to go for coziness over true hygge. L.L. Bean will happily sell you shearling-lined slippers to wear while curled up in front of the fire. But if hygge is about the way we are with one another, we don't need the slippers, or even the fireplace.
But if I'm understanding the concept correctly, there is an atmospheric element to hygge. It's not just about attitude. This pleases me, because I generally enjoy the homemaking preparations for Christmas. I'm selective about what I do: baked goods, yes, Christmas cards no; candles on the table, yes, decorations outside, no, we're miserable suburbanites in that regard. Such preparations can seem frivolous in light of so much despair and turmoil in the world. But if, in all our holiday bustling we're really cultivating hygge, then well, that feels like worthwhile labor.
Those of us who are Christian will gather in two nights' time to hear once again the story of God assuming human flesh. This means that our matter, matters, and that authentic things in life aren't just products of our intellects, but are actually experienced through our five senses and felt in our very pores. The irreverent rip of colored paper and pop of tape as a loved one digs into a wrapped gift. The various aromas emanating from the oven. The glow of candlelight. The same carols, sung year after year.
What are your markers of hygge? Whatever they are, I wish you oodles of it.