For the past two weeks I’ve been in Denmark visiting my extended family in Thisted and Klitmøller in Northern Jutland, Roskilde, and Copenhagen. We’ve spent many hours at the dinner table and I must say that hygge is the real deal. In the US there’s been a lot of hype about hygge (pronounced HOO-geh, not higgy). If you put that word in Amazon.com’s search box you’ll get a raft of books published in the past year or two about it. Stores selling anything from candles to fuzzy socks to soft furniture capitalize on it. What is hygge? Honestly, there’s no American translation, but from my experiences here, it’s the warmth of a relaxed, intimate connection with family and friends, generally around the table. It’s contentment, wellbeing, comfort, closeness, conversation, peacefulness. Often it’s with a warm drink like tea, coffee, or hot chocolate. “Cozy” probably comes closest to describing it.
I now know hygge first-hand, experiencing it in homes nearly every day. At my cousin’s brick house in the forest, we sat around the dinner table, picking meat out of local crabs to put on bread for smørrebrod (open sandwiches), talking and laughing, drinking beer and wine. Another meal was in Klitmøller, a town near the old farmhouse where my impoverished ancestors had lived, scraping by as hired hands hauling fishing boats to the shore or selling peat to neighbors for fuel. At the table at this cousin’s summer home, the family broke out singing a cheerful song about feasting on various types of herring. Can’t say I’ve done that in the US! Hygge is in the connection we all shared, and it’s in many, many homes through out Denmark, outside at picnic tables, on sofas by a fire.
Maybe Danes can enjoy the simple pleasures of hygge because they don’t have to worry about larger issues: no worries about college debt because education is free (my niece just finished medical school, covered by the government), no worries about health care costs because that’s covered too, no worries about saving for retirement or supporting aging parents because pensions are assured, and the list goes on. Yes they pay a lot of taxes, but as one cousin puts it, “We’re not a country of have’s and have-not’s. In Denmark we’re all have-enough’s.” Another cousin said that with this tax structure, they know that as they earn more they’ll pay more, so they don’t really equate money with happiness. They can pick a college major or a career trajectory based on what they enjoy and are good at, not on what they can earn. Without the larger sources of worry, they turn to what really matters. Simple stuff.
Hygge seems to have been around in Denmark for a long, long time. At the northernmost tip of Denmark, the Skagens art museum has an exhibit called At the table: People, food, & nature morte. The collection of paintings showcases the table as central to their everyday life.
I’m adding a new adjective to my vocabulary, hyggelig (HOO-gully). My cousins used it a lot with each other: “That was a hyggelig time,” “Such a nice hyggelig dinner.” What a warm take-away from visiting my Danish family.