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Our Hygge moment: How a Danish cultural concept can help cut through the dark Minnesota winter

From everything I can gather, hygge describes an intentional chilling out of the spirit as a way to harmonize with – not combat or stave off – the darkness of winter.

a candle
“Hygge provides a warmth that the climate doesn’t. There’s candles in every window, and the restaurants all have these big torches out front. But it’s bigger than just decorating.”

Last week, on computer screens and smartphones all over Minnesota, the meme shot out across the dark, cold winter like a slow-rolling snowball: “How ‘hygge’ can help you get through winter.”  

With a collective “gimme some of that,” those of us already torpedoed by this year’s record-breakingly frigid Minnesota winter clicked on Russell McLendon’s piece for the Mother Nature Network, wondering what exotic new blend of ayahuasca and absinthe, exercise regimen, yoga practice, or tropical getaway of the mind was suddenly available to help beat the winter blues.  

Turns out hygge is an old, not new thing, and summed up by McLendon as, “not an easy word for outsiders to pronounce – it sounds sort of like HYU-gah – and it’s even harder to translate. Hygge apparently has no direct analogue in English, and related words like ‘coziness,’ ‘togetherness,’ and ‘well-being’ only cover a fraction of its nebulous definition.”

News to me, but from everything I can gather, hygge describes an intentional chilling out of the spirit as a way to harmonize with – not combat or stave off – the darkness of winter, and an intentional meditative time created out of the much-maligned but potentially fruitful malady we desperately call cabin fever. Hygge, then, is about man caves. Woman caves. Ice houses. Saunas. Igloos. Blankets.  Hunkering down. Staying in. Cuddling up. Lighting candles. Making love, not work or war.

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“If we don’t have hygge in Minnesota in the winter, we’ll go stir crazy. It’s a matter of survival,” laughed my friend and neighbor Heather Vick, who works for Concordia Language Villages at The Norway House in Minneapolis, and who practices hygge in her home for the holidays by implementing a strict “no television” rule: “It’s quiet, and everybody has to talk to each other. That’s hygge. The whole concept of it is so cool.”

“I’ve been lucky enough to travel to [Denmark’s capital] Copenhagen four times in my life,” says Minneapolis-based travel and transportation author and writer Jay Walljasper,  “and it’s just very much a convivial place to want to go back to, and it’s not – listen to this, Twin Cities – about the weather. It rains all the time and the winters are legendarily bad. But even with that, everything is just so … right.

“Hygge provides a warmth that the climate doesn’t. There’s candles in every window, and the restaurants all have these big torches out front. But it’s bigger than just decorating.”

Ja. Hygge may be the best example of one people’s power of positive thinking, promoting as it does a mindset that life should be savored, not survived, and that comfort, beauty, and internal and external warmth are the keys to a rich existence on the frozen tundra. Also, from One Lonely Planet’s guide to Copenhagen:

Hygge refers to a sense of friendly, warm companionship of a kind fostered when Danes gather together in groups of two or more, although you can actually hygge yourself if there is no one else around. The participants don’t even have to be friends (indeed you might only just have met), but if the conversation flows – avoiding potentially divisive topics like politics and the best method to pickle herring – the bonhomie blossoms, toasts are raised before an open fire (or at the very least, some candles), you are probably coming close.”

“They have what’s called the dark time there, and in the winter people practically hibernate,” said Eric Dregni, an associate professor of English at Concordia University, a Fulbright fellow to Norway, and the author of several books, including “In Cod We Trust: Living The Norwegian Dream.” “Christmas is such a big deal in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, it’s just a huge holiday and they light candles everywhere and try to get cozy.

“The word they use a lot is ‘hyggeligt,’ which means ‘Pleased to meet you,’ and ‘cozalie,’ which means ‘cozy,’ and describes a place. There’s also ‘hyggelig’ which is to comfort yourself, or be very reflective.”

Thanks to its shared Scandinavian and subarctic roots, Minnesota is something of an American mirror to Denmark, which, despite its perpetually frigid and sun-challenged state is routinely named by the United Nations as the happiest place on the planet. Hygge, then, can be defined as a deliberate slowing down of life’s rat race in order to appreciate small and simple gifts, and manifest in every get-together in every home, bar, and church, and in the luminaries, candles, bonfires, and holiday lights that blaze all over Minnesota this time of year.

Or can it? Maybe hygge is best defined by the individual, and maybe crazed, competitive Americans can’t fully buy into the notion of slowing down toward something close to utopia.

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“I was over there one time and I was doing a story on Copenhagen, and I went to lunch with someone from the tourism board that I didn’t really want to do, because it really wasn’t what my story was about,” said Walljasper. “But I did it sort of as a courtesy to this woman and she sat down and just said, ‘You know, the thing you have to understand about the Danes is that we believe that when you’re moving, your soul doesn’t catch up with you until you stop for half an hour.’

“The Danes aren’t a particularly religious people, but I think there’s a certain spiritual quality that’s inherent. And at first I was sort of perplexed by that, but I’ve thought about it so many times since: You’re rushing around and you find yourself in a nice café or something and you realize, 27 or 28 minutes later, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a human being again. I’m not just clicking things off my ‘To Do’ list.’ “

Cocoa. Afghans. Whisky. Comforters. Flannel. Friends. Family. Lovers. Happy winter solstice and longest days and nights of the winter, Minnesota. Time to get warm, embrace your inner Dane, and – now that we have a name for it – get your hygge on.