Danish Tradition of Hygge

Rebecca Parker Payne
Photos: Austin Sailsbury

October 04 2015

The time I have spent in Denmark cannot be described as anything more than ephemeral. However, there’s something about Danish culture that I don’t ever foresee losing. Hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) in particular, leaves quite an impression. Hygge is a Danish word used to describe their sense of hospitality and community. But it’s more specific and more persuasive than that. Unfortunately, there is no clear translation to English so we are forced to understand it in relative terms.

Often translated as “coziness” or “warmth,” hygge infers a degree of physical comfort. Originally stemming from the Norwegian word for “well-being,” hygge has since evolved and taken on a life of its own. In the colder months, hygge is long tapered candles burning low in tall windows and along a restaurant bar. It’s candles on front steps and candles even perched precariously in Christmas trees. It’s mulled wine, big blankets, and not letting the fire die.

My ex-pat Danish friend once told me about his morning routine with his wife. He said, “We get up, make breakfast…and since we live in Denmark, we obviously have candles lit in the morning as well.” For the Danes, there is no distinction between time worthy of candlelight or not. All time, even if over the daily mundanity of making coffee and eating yogurt, is time enough for candles.

In the warmer–and for the Danes, the brighter months– it’s lingering in the waning sun of a spring evening with a firepit and grill. It’s picnics and bike rides, and camping along the shore. Hygge is aesthetically and atmospherically whatever it needs to be in order to feel inviting. It’s the art of curating and creating a place where people can be at ease, without distractions, and without the real or metaphorical noise of the outside world.

Hygge is also, mysteriously, more than just the environment. It’s the posture of the people who are gathered there. It’s often associated with people coming together– over a meal or over coffee or over some sort of celebration. And this part is integral. While it is possible to enjoy hygge by one’s lonesome, it comes to fullness with others around. Hygge is thusly versatile and encompassing– it can be a noun or verb such as, “the hygge around the table was pervasive.” But, when used as hyggelit (pronounced hoogah-lee), it can also function as an adjective.

For my brief stay in Denmark, I ate meals in no less than ten kitchens and dining rooms of Copenhagen residents. I was by definition a stranger in these homes, an invited guest, but a stranger nonetheless. But any fly-on-the-wall wouldn’t have known this, based on how the Danish accept their guests. Hygge makes it easy to be inviting and hospitable to anyone you entertain. It gives you the language to let down your guard, and appreciate your environment and your company. One minute you’re making introductions, the next you’re chopping potatoes and quoting “Twin Peaks.” Then somehow you find yourself biking back to your flat at entirely too late of an hour.

It’s easy to forget that this effervescence and enthusiasm comes from a country that experiences some of the darkest winters across the globe. They are accustomed to long, dark, cold winters, where the sun appears for a few lonely hours each day. Granted it seems like it evens out in the long, bright, warm hours of the summer, where the sun hangs overhead for a languid 18 hours each day.

From my limited knowledge of hygge and Danish culture, it’s no surprise that Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. Indeed, the UN World Happiness Report has honored Denmark with the #1 spot for the last two years of the survey. And before that, Denmark was consistently leading the European Commission’s well-being and happiness index for over 40 years. They align their priorities in a way that ensures their populace is finding meaning in community, good food, and engaging aesthetic experiences. They don’t curse the seasons, but accept them and make something good from them– even during the most brutal of months.

Want to experience hygge for yourself? Light more candles, stay at the table longer and, let candle wax spill everywhere. Stock up on wine and never be short on blankets or firewood. Cut more flowers to build more bouquets. Eat outside, even if the temperatures aren’t perfect and don’t be afraid to invite more strangers to dinner. Lose the hustle, and just be.

Rebecca Parker Payne is a writer, Corgi enthusiast, and pie-baker based in Richmond, VA.  Photos by Austin Sailsbury.