I’m really taken with the concept of hygge…a term used to describe all the most wonderful things I already veer towards doing, being and celebrating at this time of the year, so finding one word to encompasses them all feels like, in some way, “bottling” them (making them all the easier to share).
“Hygge” (pronounced hyooga) is the Danish word for cosying up, switching on lights, huddling in warm places, gathering with others, celebrating and socialising, softening the hard inflexible lines of work and routine, being intimate and loving, making the very best of things, cooking and eating great food and creating, then focussing upon, “inner” glow, especially in the darker months when there might very well be a storm or biting cold outside the door. These days, it has come to refer a whole way of life that incorporates simple yet powerful embellishments to everyday existence such as lighting candles in boardrooms or shifting your “office” to a cosy table in a coffee shop, taking regular winter walks, decorating windows and winter trees, wearing colourful clothes and eccentric woollens; generally, eating, drinking, generating colour and light and being very merry.
It seems to have a close cousin in the Norwegian word “koselig” (yes, you’re right, related to “cosy”) and the Scandinavians, in general, seem to be gifted with an ability to make the most of the dark months. Maybe its all that Viking DNA in me, which I have in spadefuls but, it has always been a natural inclination of mine to turn hibernation into an art-form and with every means at my disposal, putting huge effort and forethought into how to spend these dark winter months with the maximum of inner glow. The Danish get these things so right that they routinely come top of any international “happiness” polls and, in fact, there’s so much about the Scandinavian mentality that innately appeals to me that I have tickets booked to visit Denmark and Sweden in 2016 and literally can’t wait to experience more of this firsthand, especially in Copenhagen, the capital of hygge.
The top end of the northern hemisphere can bring seasonal challenges for anyone who, like me, notices the subtlest dip in the light-quality (and where I live in the UK isn’t even that dark, compared with Scandinavia) but never have the darker months felt gloomier than this year with its endless parade of days that seem to get no lighter than dishcloth grey and without very much of the lemony winter sunlight that usually punctuates the dullness for at least an hour or two at this time of year. Yes, there have been those intermittent days when its as though someone switches all the colour back on…but for every precious moment of low-angled sunlight flooding the house with golden magic there have been at least another half dozen or more long days of crashing wind, heavy rain and drearily monochrome tones; the sort of light quality that makes the mid-morning feel like an apologetic daybreak and the dusk a rapid slide into night-time that begins all over again just as soon as lunch is over.
To my friends that live in other climates, all of this may sound very alien and they may wonder what all the fuss is about but when the daylight hours hardly seem to generate any light at all, it can start to affect you very profoundly indeed. This year, I’ve noticed more than ever how everything familiar is profoundly altered by long hours of darkness, perhaps because the climate has turned milder and more gloomy and wet rather than crisp, cold and bright as it used to be. The descent into darkness that occurs as the shortest day approaches felt very profound this time around and, conversely, I am already noticing (with a heart-skip of joy) the already perceptible lifting of the darkness – and the return of more birdsong – as the days start to stretch out again. Perhaps the time when hygge comes most into its own is this potentially “flat” time between Christmas and New Year, or at the start of January, when so many people feel tired, spent-out and a little crestfallen that the festivities are all over. Rather than sink ourselves into the sales or booking our next holiday, some time spent cupping a warm spicy drink around a fireplace, going for a family walk or listening to lovely music to candlelight with a great book can be the best tonic in the world before life picks up its inevitable pace again.
Faced with the UK’s seasonal prejudice towards short, over-cast, days for at least two to three months of the year, my instinct has always been to counter this by dotting strings of lights and candles around every conceivable living space during the winter months, not just at Christmas. I also like to create a living tableau of heart-felt warmth around the family hearth, a focal point around preparing and sharing delicious meals, to seek out christmas markets, amber-hued coffee shops and places full of magic and light, to surround myself with sparkling glass, warm and uplifting fragrances and lusciously evocative music, to nest in softest, most tactile fabrics and light many log fires (however mild the temperatures still remain…) and to get outside, in all weather, to max-out on every available photon of light. Imagine my thrill to find there’s actually a word for all this.
The Danish word “hygge” (thought to broadly mean “wellbeing”) is commonly thought to be related to the English word “hug” and that’s no real surprise; its a case of hugging, or holding close, everything that is near and dear, including family, friends, activities, things. These are collectively known as “hyggeligt” and the act of setting out to make something thus is regarded as “hyggerling”. In action, it becomes a form of self-care or medicine (because, like me, Scandinavians aren’t big on taking over-the-counter or prescription medicine for their ailments); a sort of happiness-broth and hot toddy for the soul. Where complete strangers are egged into conversation with each other across elbow-close tables around a warm fire or a string of lanterns over a market stall, people break down their barriers and find their own common threads in the most hyggerlicht of ways and every opportunity is found to catalyse social gatherings and to decorate ordinary things in ways that make them look festive, cosy and inviting.
As I write this, there’s a bird outside that seems to have hygge’s number. In the semi-light of half-hearted daybreak, a real storm is raging and it sounds like an angry giant is storming around my garden clanking a bucket that I can hear being thrown repeatedly against the legs of the garden furniture that is on the move across my patio, crashing into plant pots. My usually tinkling wind chimes have got into the groove of such a somber marching pace, “click-clack” against brick, with the back-up timpani of my letterbox rattling, that they sound much more like the rhythmic clanking of Marley’s ghost over the top of such a storm roar that you could be forgiven for thinking I live by the ocean.
In the midst of all that cacophony, an octave or two above all the din, the clear pure note of the sweetest little bird-song can be heard just hanging in the air, somewhere near the top of one of the trees behind our house. Calmly, insistently, joyfully trilling away to its own inner-melody, this bird is having none of the weather’s hissy-fit but continues to put out its own melodious tune, regardless of the chaos. Somehow the ethereal sound of this most beautiful of songs, and not for the first time this week, is holding far more of my attention than any of the crashing, thundering hullaballoo that is going on out there. As the first light begins to break, other birds are now starting to follow its lead but it was the startling juxtaposition of that first honeyed note against the pitch black storm sky that most captivated me and held me in my own space of sublimest calm within the storm’s tirade. That’s exactly what hygge, in action, feels like to me and this little bird knows how to deliver it.
There are many articles and videos out there, it turns out, describing what hygge is; in fact, there is a whole movement birthing right now in an attempt to export it to the rest of the world as the ability to create, cultivate and and sustain the spirit of hygge through the darkest of times is a skill-set we could all use, regardless of our seasonal light-quota. When the world seems a troubling place and others are being hammered, it seems, with ill-fortune (and yes, some of this caused by extreme seasonal weather), it serves us all well to be able to cultivate and then draw upon our own inner light resources – in our own hearts and then together, in intimate collectives – not as a means to ignoring “what’s going on out there” but as a means to remembering how to hold our own and, then, our communal light steady, beaming it out to others, which only helps make the combined light of the world ever stronger.
Impossible not to notice that this feels like an extremely apt seasonal sentiment to carry through in the months of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year festivities and one that, I suspect, we have innately, culturally and communally known the importance of – deep down – since long before religion, nationality or commercialism picked up the mantle of this time of year’s behaviour patterns. Going back to what innately draws us as the winter season plays out its pantomime of darkness and severity, we find ourselves recognising the light of ourselves shining back at us across the cosy darkness of our most intimate living spaces, delivered straight out of the eyes of others we hold dear as we embrace the darkness to forge times of warmer glow in communion with family and friends, even strangers that have spontaneously gathered upon these terms of hospitality, conviviality and generally good vibe. We learn to recognise it as a feeling – a particular vibration, a harmonious tone – that was once deeply familiar to us (…as cultivated over camp-fires) then we notice that, when others hold that same warm resonance like a lantern in a storm, the darker months no longer seem quite so daunting or so ominous. Like so many scattered birds that might once have considered ourselves all alone, perched on our own sometimes precarious, wind-bowed branch on a cold or stormy night, we start to recognise how holding our own singular note lightens the space. Then as other shapes step out of the darkness and join in with the growing chorus, we notice how the innate harmony we create together sounds out ever more clearly, more beautifully and more brightly against the backdrop of any dark storm that happens to show up to rage against the door.
One of the ways that I got extremely hyggelicht this month was by heading to the Bath Christmas Market; guaranteed to provide plenty of magical light and convivial atmosphere, brightly lit cafés, live music and good cheer set against the darkening afternoon skies. Quite a few of the photos used in this post are from that trip and I’ve put together a varied album of many images that conjure up a feeling of hygge for me if you want to take a look by clicking on this image…