winter survival wisdom from Denmark

While most people dream of warmer weather when January comes around, I’m missing a chilly, dark environment not too different from our own. Rather than opting for a beachside getaway, I’m reminiscing about one by candlelight. I would take the 3 p.m. sunset over a sunburn any day if it meant I was cuddling up for a hyggeligt Scandinavian evening.

I had the unique opportunity to study abroad twice when I was in college. I spent the spring of 2016 in Copenhagen, Denmark and the month of January 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden. These experiences were very different from one another. I was studying in Copenhagen and working in Stockholm, and I had to adapt to local cultures each time; I only got a month in Stockholm and spent a full semester in Copenhagen. 

My experiences in both places were wonderful, enlightening and meaningful. They were also dark and cold. 

Enter “hygge.” It’s a Danish term that doesn’t translate well to English, but it is often explained as being cozy, merry, or a combination of the two. To me, hygge is a good laugh with my family during dinner, cuddling up under a big warm blanket to watch a movie with my boyfriend, or even lounging on my couch writing this article next to my tiny Christmas tree, listening to my clock tick and candles flicker. To my host sister in Copenhagen, hygge was watching Netflix. It’s really more about the feeling it creates than the activity itself. 

I reflect on hygge as a warm and lovely tradition, but I believe it to be more of a coping mechanism than anything else. Denmark isn’t excessively cold – it’s no Eden Prairie, Minnesota, anyway. But it’s rainy and dark, and they don’t have the warmest of summers to look forward to. Hygge is the way the Danes keep warm and keep their status as some of the world’s happiest people.

We talked about hygge a lot when I was in Copenhagen. We learned about it in classes, we participated in it, we blogged for our travel writing classes about it, my American friends and I mentioned it in Instagram captions once a month or so, and we promised ourselves we wouldn’t forget it when we came home. 

Hygge stayed important to me when I was in Stockholm. It isn’t a part of their culture, but I thought it should be. Their nights were just as long and sometimes felt colder, so my roommate and I made sipping tea and watching New Girl a nightly occurrence. 

I continue these practices today. Making sure I spend enough quality time with my friends and drink enough quality wine with my family is important to me. When I get overwhelmed or upset about something, I know the best place to go is home and I will feel better again. Sharing good food and conversation in a warm place can make most things feel better.

I like to think I brought hygge home with me, but I know it wasn’t mine to take. I love to read books on rainy days and cook with my mom, but these things can’t really be hygge because we aren’t Danish. 

Hygge is inherently exclusive. I didn’t understand that until my time in Copenhagen was almost over. There are only about 5 million Danes and they are remarkably similar in their circumstances. They love what they have in common, and that others don’t have it. The most hygge thing of all is the Danish language, and try as I might, the only part of that I ever learned was an announcement about transportation passes I heard several times a day on the metro.

I think I got about as hygge as any outsider could in my time in Denmark. That’s the main reason why I tend to feel a twinge of resentment toward hygge becoming a stateside trend. I think hygge is a great practice for anyone. It’s self-care. It’s also a tricky concept to grasp. Case in point: there’s a home security system commercial that not only mispronounces the word itself but also completely misses the point. Hygge isn’t knowing that no one can break into your home. It is about contentedly enjoying the here and now too much to worry about it.

Whether or not Minnesotans can truly experience hygge, the concept is still something that can benefit us. Staying cozy and content in a Minnesota winter isn’t a small task and taking note from the Danes could help us get there. 

When you have had a long, chilly day this month, try ending it with a glass of wine or a cup of cocoa and an activity you and a loved one can enjoy together. Make time for a leisurely cup of coffee on Sunday morning. Bake cookies for no reason. These Americanized bits of hygge can make the season a little cozier.

To be completely respectful to my friends in Denmark, I have to acknowledge that this is my outsider’s perspective. The Danes enjoy foreigners’ interest in their traditions, but their culture is uniquely theirs. I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to Copenhagen, so you can experience it for yourself. Even in winter. Picture outdoor, waterfront dining next to Nyhavn harbor with a blanket on every chair and Danish children in snowsuits, reveling in the cold, fresh air. Skål!