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hygge: embracing winter

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Inspiration so often springs from the strangest places, sideways, from oblique corners. From a meal, or an isolated line in an otherwise less compelling passage of writing, from the strain of a song, countryside fog, city nights. I have an isolated memory of meeting a girlfriend for tea and cake in Jericho, Oxford on a freezing afternoon several winters ago. She was wearing a Marni tea-dress in a bold floral-printed wool under a mannish coat, and locked up her bicycle in the dim pool of light under a nearby lamppost. For some reason (who knows why?) this brief snippet of a memory has never been diluted by the time that has passed, as so many others have; it has always since inspired me and I remember it often ~ more than the conversation we had or the forkfuls of sponge that we ate (many) ~ I remember the cold bleakness of the day, the warmth of the coffee-shop, the steaming tea, the colours of her dress.  

There is a word I have recently discovered that seems to me to clarify the atmosphere of that distant afternoon, and its name is Hygge. I have a fondness for foreign words that defy immediate translation. Around about the same time I was studying for a Masters in Creative Writing and my preoccupation then was the word Hireth, which is Cornish, and bears similarities to Hiraeth in Welsh, and the Portuguese concept Saudade; loosely explained it means longing for a place or person from which one is permanently separated, nostalgia, homesickness. I explored this in my dissertation, which was concerned with place ~ specifically East Africa, where my maternal grandfather was posted during World War II, and Cornwall, where my paternal ancestors hail from. 

Hygge, however, has altogether more pleasant connotations, though it holds the same fascination for me, which is that a single, vague word can sum up a concept that elicits a particular cultural emotion. Hygge derives from the Norwegian for ‘well-being’ and was first used in Danish around the close of the 18th century. As elusive in exact meaning as it is to work out the precise pronunciation (the closest I have been able to find is heur-gha), hygge has become an integral part of life to the Danes, embedded in their national consciousness, and they are supposedly one of the happiest nations in the world as a result ~ despite their subarctic climate, meagre allocation of daylight hours in winter, and unendingly gritty crime dramas. The definition of hygge is open to interpretation and the Danes have elevated it from a word to a kind of cultural cure-all, as well they might. Loosely, though, it translates to a feeling of cosiness and comfort, conviviality, intimacy between friends. It requires a slowing down, home-cooked food, firelight. The adjective for hygge is hyggeligt ~ a hyggeligt room (read mood-lighting), a hyggeligt afternoon (spent wearing sheepskin slippers and a cozy cardigan, nose-deep in one’s favourite novel), and so on and so forth.

Hygge is a concept I fully endorse now that the clocks have gone back and the evenings are becoming shivery and ever darker. Soon the golden late afternoon light will become brittle and frail, and then, as far as I can tell for most of us Brits, Seasonal Affective Disorder will set in until approximately March, breaking only for a brief spell around Christmas when there is enough shopping and food and booze around to temporarily keep it at bay. Hygge, then, seems worth exploring, no? It might of course be beyond our well-founded national cynicism and general grumpiness to fully embrace it, but I like the sound of it in principle very much ~ twinkly lights, festivity, cushy knitwear. If atmosphere affects mood, and the weather is ghastly, then it makes sense to make indoors as comforting as possible to counterbalance the long months of gloom. A cultural phenomenon of snuggling and gløgg, what’s not to love?

Hygge, if you can believe in it enough to create it ~ and this seems to be the crux; it has to be created for yourself (and friends), by yourself (and friends) ~ can be achieved by a restorative cocktail of moderate but daily doses of indulgence, even decadence. This is a recipe to assuage those days when you feel your life is a tragic play, when the snow outside isn’t Nordic and romantic but has turned a sludge-grey and all about you is shadowy murk; a cure for dark November days and melancholic afternoons. This is the time for washing your hair, putting on your favourite lipstick and venturing out for a walk in the park (or indeed slinking around on a bicycle, in a pretty dress by lamplight before indulging in hot tea and layers of sponge with cream and jam). A time for embracing the suede-and-sequin side of winter, finding solace in the kitchen and under the duvet. 

Hygge is unashamedly luxuriating in pulling the drawbridge up, turning your phone off, running a long hot bath ~ the antithesis to winter apathy and the old-fashioned, equally self-indulgent affliction that is midwinter melancholy.

The recipe, if one can call it that, seems to be laughter and companionship ~ snuggling up with loved ones, meeting up with friends at your favourite café for tea in the afternoon when the windows are all fogged up and it is getting dark out; curative, nourishing food ~ stocking the fridge and cupboards with sustaining seasonal provisions that enhance your day or evening (while ideally not the waistline, though that may be in part unavoidable); getting outdoors, leaving the house and getting out into the cold world outside until you have attained ruddy cheeks and nippy fingers in order solely to come back inside again and feel glowing beside the fire with a warming drink ~ eggnog, mulled wine or stove-warmed apple juice spiced with ginger and star anise. Other optional ingredients include deep, fragrant bubble-baths and indulgent trips to your local florist for a few sprigs of something cheering to put in a jug on the dining table, but the really integral part of the recipe is, of course, candlelight. Candles, particularly the scented variety, seem to be the very bedrock of the Danes’ hygge concept ~ a hyggeligt home must be flickering with tiny flames, as many as is possible without burning the house down.

And so, to the memory of that far-off hyggeligt tea, and in the spirit of alleviating the doldrums and the sorry business of the onset of too-short days, let’s raise a glass of our favourite tipple (preferably warm and steaming) - here’s to the winter of 2015, may it be hyggeligt!