The year of living Danishly: The hype about hygge could help us navigate a winter of discontent
December 30, 2016 12:00 AM
"Hygge" broadly means an approach to living that embraces the enjoyment of everyday experiences.
By Ginny Kopas Joe / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Eva Robinson is not clearing her throat when she utters “hygge.”
Rather, the Butler woman is complimenting you and referencing a wellness trend that’s the biggest export from her homeland since Legos.
The phonetically challenging “hygge” — make a pouting face and say HUE-gah — is a Danish word that broadly means an approach to living that embraces the enjoyment of everyday experiences. It’s loosely translated into English as “coziness.”
“But it’s so much more,” said Ms. Robinson, who should know. She is head of the Royal Danish Consulate of Pittsburgh, which is housed in her Butler home. She has been knighted by her native Denmark for the honorary consulate’s work of giving tri-state residents tourism and trade information and helping with passports.
“Hygge is difficult to describe, but wonderful to do,” she said. Meeting an old friend on the street is hygge. Putting on woolen socks is hygge. Lighting a candle is hygge. A family meal is hygge, she explained.
It can be a noun (hygge), an adjective (hyggelig) or a verb (hygge sig), but regardless, “It’s those comforting, cozy things you do that make you savor life,’’ she said.
Hygge is taking the world by, er, calm, after Oxford Dictionaries had it shortlisted as Word of the Year for 2016. (The adjective post-truth won that honor.) Hygge is all over bookshelves, including Meik Wiking’s “The Little Book of Hygge.” And IKEA, a company based in another Scandinavian country, Sweden, has products to “get hygge” at home. Social media uses hygge as a hashtag for photos of fireplaces, cashmere sweaters, sleepy kittens. You get the idea.
And while the celebration of all things fuzzy and warm is entrenched in Danish culture, Ms. Robinson thinks Americans are now looking for a lifestyle change after a brutal election year.
“We are looking to unplug from the headlines,’’ she said. “So the hype here about hygge is not surprising.’’
In another nod to Denmark, a Danish language class is being taught for the first time at the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus in Oakland. Professor Doris Short said there is no shortage of hygge in the Cathedral of Learning.
Most of the students in the class have family connections to Denmark — the U.S. Census Bureau found 1.5 million Americans with ancestral ties to that Scandinavian country — but “while one has to be taught the language, you can’t teach hygge. It’s a ritual, a rhythm of life that needs to be embraced,’’ Ms. Short said.
Hygge is a great way to get through the dark winter months of this new year, she added.
While Western Pennsylvania can generally expect January and February to be frigid and snowy, consider that in Denmark, January also means 17 hours of dark per day.
“The Danes needed to counter that kind of weather with something,’’ Ms. Short said. And around the 18th century, the Danes borrowed the word from neighboring Norway, where it’s all hygge all the time.
“Instead of running from one event to the next, instead of staring at computer screens, we need to reflect on what makes us comfortable and how we can work these things into our lives,’’ Ms. Short said.
The professor acknowledged that it may be easier for Danes to embrace hygge. Denmark is a kind of Democratic socialist yet free market country, where “you don’t worry about health insurance, maternity leave, child care or college tuition,” she noted. And generous government pensions are provided. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders has called Denmark “a model” for his vision of America.
“There are higher taxes. But hygge is working. Denmark is regularly voted one of the happiest countries in the world by various research groups,’’ Ms. Short said.
Both Ms. Robinson and Ms. Short were born in villages outside of Copenhagen and moved here when their families came for work. Both are now naturalized American citizens and are active in the Scandinavian Society of Western Pennsylvania, a 200-member group devoted to keeping those traditions alive.
“Denmark’s lasting mark on America is more than Legos and cheese,” Ms. Robinson emphasized.
Those little plastic blocks named “leg godt” — or play well — that have kept kids building for decades are the brainchild of the Christiansen family of Denmark.
And, of course, there’s Havarti and Danish blues, she noted.
“But hygge may be the most important import of all.’’
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