Hygge: The Danish way of staying cozy and contented through dark winter days
Perhaps you’ve seen the word and don’t know how to say it. Maybe you’ve heard it but didn’t recognize it in print.
The word hygge is hard to pronounce and even harder to define.
Hygge, which is Danish, sounds like WHO-guh. As for defining it. …
“It’s a cozy feeling,” says Barbara Larsen of Overland Park. “That’s as simple as I can say it. And that can come in many different forms. Like you could be sitting in a big easy chair with a cup of hot tea or coffee and reading a book on a snowy winter day. And that’s a feeling of hygge.
“I don’t consciously think of it, but when we’ve got an icy day or snowy day and it’s just plain rainy and gloomy, well, then we want to stay in and have a hygge experience,” she adds.
But it’s not just about warm and cozy in the literal sense. It’s also about finding simple ways to be happy.
Barbara’s husband, Dean Larsen, is Danish — his parents were born in Denmark — and Barbara is mostly Swedish but embraces the Danish culture.
The two have traveled to Denmark on several occasions to visit his family. It was there that they experienced the true meaning of the word.
On one trip, they stopped in Belgium, where they ate at an oddly quiet restaurant packed with people.
“You could hear a pin drop, because people in Belgium take eating food very, very seriously,” Larsen says.
“Then we were in Denmark several days later in a hotel restaurant, and a bunch of people came in and sat around a big table, and it wasn’t long before they were whooping and hollering. We couldn’t believe the difference. People in Denmark have a really great time when they eat. They were telling stories and singing and toasting each other. This has always been something that interests us as a good comparison.”
Josh Rogers, co-owner of Krokstrom Klubb & Market, a midtown restaurant that specializes in Scandinavian food, says hygge is a word to describe a means of staying happy and warm during the winter.
Winter weather in Denmark can be grim, with incessant snow, ice and icy winds bolstered by dark, short days and temperatures ranging from 5 to 22 degrees below zero.
“Hygge is a way to enjoy happiness in each other’s company to counteract constant darkness,” Rogers says. “When you’re surrounded by darkness, enjoy friends and a good meal.”
It also means appreciating and taking joy in everyday life.
“What it is is ability to be happy all the time. That’s what it really means,” says Karen Nielsen, the Danish honorary consul in the Kansas City area. “I come from a long line of Danes, and they practice it and basically they do it by saying, ‘Gee we don’t all have to have five cars in the family.’ They make things as simple as possible and are happy with it.”
The Larsens invited me for lunch so I could experience hygge firsthand.
Barbara served smorrebrod, three plates of open-face sandwiches made of thin slices of hearty, handmade bread slathered with butter and topped with cold cuts or spreads and finished off with herbs, olives, beets, pickles and other edible accoutrement. They were so vivid, they looked like colorful pieces of pop art. They were also delicious.
We ate in a large great room that they had built onto the rear of their ranch home several years ago. Scandinavians, including the Danes, put a premium on natural daylight, and this room had it in spades. It also had crisp, modern, Scandinavian-style furniture.
Barbara thought it was the most hygge room in her home until a Danish friend visited.
“I asked, ‘What do you think of our new great room that we added onto the back of our house?’ ” she said. “And he said, ‘Oh I don’t think that room is hygge. Your living room is hygge.’ We have a couple of big easy chairs in there, the kind you can curl up in … and the same with the couch. It’s just a very relaxed atmosphere. I thought it was interesting after spending all that money on that (rear great) room. But you know, whatever makes your boat float.”
And that might be another good definition for hygge … whatever makes your boat float during cold winter days.