The Art of Hygge

Hygge has over the recent years spread beyond the Danish borders. It is often described as an idea, or concept, and in a way that is too limited. Hygge is much more than that. It is embedded in our culture in a very profound way, and where that is most evident is in the language. We use the words hygge and hyggelig all the time. All echelons of society use the hygge word, but not all activities are hyggelig. Hygge is for everybody. We all know what it refers to, and at the same time it is actually hard to pinpoint exactly.

Hygge is a feeling that in many ways is difficult to translate, or even explain, in Danish. It describes an atmosphere of wellbeing, of creating lasting moments that feels intimate, or gives you a feeling of comfort in a relaxing way. It is something we strive to achieve all the time and it, therefore, more or less defines all situations, if they were hyggelig or not. The goal is that a lot of time spent in our lives should be hyggelig.

Our home is our castle. We refer to homes as stylish, or pristine, but the biggest compliment you can give a Dane for their home is that it is hyggeligt. The interior is crucial; the home creates the first frame for hygge. A big kitchen where you can entertain or at least a corner in the kitchen where you can sit, lit a candle, and drink morning coffee. A dining table is very important so that you can linger over dinner, in general a hyggelig home, is a home that feel lived in. A home that reflects how you are and tell your story.

Our homes are very open to friends, family, and neighbours and we do have people visiting a lot. Spontaneously, people will come and see you, and the first thing you do is to offer them coffee, tea or glass of wine if before or around dinner time would. Most likely something to eat will also be offered, which just a few decades back would always be a piece of cake, or Danish butter cookies. Alcohol does not have to be part of it at all; coffee is fine, or some other drink.

Hygge is more than anything the atmosphere created by hanging out. Informal is important. We love to hang out at each other’s houses for hours, eat, relax, eat again, talk, at its often okay to tune in and out of what is going on, Iike looking through the newspaper, may be watch a football game in the background. It can go on for hours. Then the atmosphere is there that we are having a good time without rules. The only rule is that it has to feel good; it has to be hyggeligt.

Hygge originated in our homes because the culture of going out is a new phenomenon and has not always been part of daily life. I would never go to a café with my grandmother, maybe a konditori for special occasions – not that I can remember we’ve ever done that. But I have spent endless hours at the dinning table, or in her sofa, drinking coffee and eating cake. Whereas going to a coffee bar with my own daughter is a common thing – and now that is super hyggeligt!

Hygge is, therefore, not defined by the place, but by what atmosphere the place has got to offer taken together with the companionship and situation. Outside your home, hygge could be at a café, going for a walk, a causal meeting, eating at a restaurant. A long formal dinner with high-end service would never be described as hyggelig, but if the evening kind of loosens up, the conversation becomes lively, and the atmosphere makes people get an authentic feeling of being together, then the guests would say: it turned out to be a hyggelig evening after all.

Hygge is often imagined as a winter thing: a cosy home culture with lots of candles and an open fireplace, lots of blankets, layer of clothes. That is partly true, but hygge is not defined by winter, we do have a lot of candles at home that we lit every evening in the dark months of the year. I would get up in the morning when it is still dark, go down to my kitchen, lit the candles, and then put the kettle on – then my morning begins. Another classic hygge thing in the winter is to go for a walk in the cold and then snuggle up again indoors with hot chocolate and buns, cake, or coffee afterwards.

From outside, Christmas is properly regarded as being the ultimate hygge time. We celebrate for a whole month, decorate our house, meet for advent on Sundays to bake, make Christmas presents, collect the Christmas tree in the woods and spend time with family and friends, enjoying traditional cakes, glühwein, and lots of other things that make for the ultimate hygge time.

Hygge is part of every season. Going to your beach, or summerhouse, is also all about hygge. The summerhouse often has a fireplace, is full of candles inside and outside, the whole interior is often about hygge, chairs, outside benches full of pillows and blankets to make sure there’s room for lots of hygge. Sitting outside in the long and bright Nordic evenings, lingering over dinner, drinking wine and talking into the early hours with friend is quintessential summer hygge. Eating outside on balconies, parks, gardens, or at the beach is the Danes‘ favourite thing.

Another occasion for hygge would also be birthdays, where we have a tradition for being woken up in bed with a birthday song, then before you go to school or work there will be a breakfast table, as we call it, with presents. For Easter we have Easter lunch, and for Pentecost there is the tradition of making lunch and staying up all night to see the Pentecost sun dance at sunrice. Then we have St Hans, the midsummer celebration, with bonfire and dinner, and often barbeque on the beach. Old holiday we call big prayer day, where we the night before eat toasted wheat buns. Morten’s evening where we eat duck with gravy and red cabbage. All traditions which are not very religious any more, but more about the hygge.

Hygge at work might sound odd, but Danes will try to achieve hygge also at work, that is, have special breaks here and there for some hygge, like eating breakfast with your team, which is a common tradition once a week in many Dane’s working life. Cake for any kind of occasion can be used as excuse for some hygge. Cake at the office can be a weekly thing in many firms for any occasion: that it’s Thursday, it’s raining, we deserve it. Then 3–7 colleagues or more will take a break for 30 minutes in the afternoon, clear somebodies desk, put flowers on the, lit a candle and get together to enjoy cake and coffee.

Hygge alone is also possible; a night inn means a night with no obligations. Again, the language is important. You will say: I’m just going to be with me, so you stayed in, lit the candle, made a cup of tea or had a glass of wine, saw a movie or read a book. You would also describe that as a hyggelig night, but more importantly, you would feel it was hyggelig. An occasion to be with yourself.

Hygge is also a reference to the relatively equal society of Denmark, or the fact that we do not care much for authorities, and we do not hesitate to challenge them. At the same time, we do not seek conflict; we are people who love a hyggelig time.

The opposite of hygge is uhygge; uhygge is scary and profoundly unpleasant. Thrillers are in Danish described as uhyggelig, but it is in a deeper sense than scary. It also describes the atmosphere, the whole feeling around suspense. Scary and unpleasant episodes in life can also be uhyggelig.

I think that, to incorporate hygge into your life is about getting the best out of it in the sense of feeling a relaxed and intimate atmosphere in most of what you do. Cooking does play an important part in that, because there is a lot of love in the gesture of cooking for other people. Eating makes us feel good, and eating with other people makes you feel even better. One way I show my love for life and people is by cooking, so for me hygge and cooking are utterly entwined. When I cook, I start by creating hygge around me, even before the actual meal is going to be enjoyed. So for me, hygge is to get the best out of most of our daily life, because life is everyday – what ever we are up to.

This essay is the full version of an essay written by Trine Hahnemann for the cookbook ‘Scandinavian Comfort Food: Embracing the Art of Hygge’. Featured image is taken from ’Scandinavian Comfort Food: Embracing the Art of Hygge’ by Trine Hahnemann. Photography: Columbus Leth.

Trine Hahnemann