On New Year’s Eve, weary and jangled from holidays and politics, my husband and I turned down a night on the town in favor of a small supper gathering whose suggested dress was pajama pants if we wanted.
We wanted. We hugged our friends at the door, handed over Theo Chocolate and peppermint schnapps, put on slippers, then tucked in around the fireplace sipping tea from a chai blend our host had made, heavy on the cardamom. Watching for snow, we ate squash bisque and homemade bread around the kitchen table, then wine-poached pears with almond cake. We then settled in over spiked hot chocolate to watch videos of our kids as toddlers, running naked through sprinklers and laughing their impossibly adorable little heads off.
Hygge, the concept of cozy well-being that has in recent months become Denmark’s number-one export, reportedly defies translation to English. New Year’s Eve translated it for me. Warmth of the literal and figurative sorts—the satisfactions of old friends and comfort food and winter weather (experienced painlessly, as through a window): Deepen all that to a soul level, bake it into an attitude—and you’ve got hygge.
To say it’s in the zeitgeist is an understatement. Fourteen books on the subject came out last fall alone, each adding new exemplars—chunky sweaters, vintage textiles, things made of wood, dogs, porridge, line-dried laundry, even watching police procedurals with friends. (It’s like with the weather: watching uncomfortable things from a place of comfort.) For 2016 the untranslatable un-sound-out-able (say “HEU-ga”) was short-listed for the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. In January, Meik Wiking, the CEO of Copenhagen’s think tank the Happiness Research Institute, released The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, a useful vehicle for learning, say, that every Dane consumes six and a half pounds of bacon a year. Bacon is seriously hyggelig (the adjective) but not as hyggelig as candlelight, which Danes consume at twice the rate they do bacon—if you can compare in pounds of candle wax—and which amply justifies the Danish word for spoilsport, lyseslukker, “one who puts out the candles.”
Those zany Danes! Happiest people in the world, according to the 2016 United Nations World Happiness Index, whose 2017 update may very well anoint them again. Yes, the index suggests, socialist democracies which prioritize care for all of their citizens create measurably high levels of well-being. Whether hygge is cause or consequence of this may be unknowable, but here’s one fact we know: The Danes have a word, tandsmør, just for the phenomenon of butter spread so thickly it shows tooth marks when you bite into it. Tooth butter.
Are you starting to feel your way into the concept of hygge? More to the point, is it starting to feel…familiar? Because the more I learn about hygge, the more it seems like Seattle invented it. Coffeehouse culture. Flannel as fashion. Weather that drives us indoors. Never mind Copenhagen—it’s Seattle that gave the world Glassybaby and Twin Peaks and Fleet Foxes and Beecher’s Mac and Cheese; we have a restaurant just for porridge, for God’s sake, and it’s lined with bricks, in a basement. (Someone should probably tell Kraken Congee, the Pioneer Square Southeast Asian restaurant, that it’s actually Danish.) Can it be an accident that those remaking for America the uberhygge Danish television mystery, The Killing, set it in Seattle? That they shot it in Vancouver—a most unhyggelig lapse of integrity—makes the point louder: When a stand-in for Copenhagen is needed, only the Seattle brand will do.
You know, the Seattle brand: compassionate, communitarian, down-to-earth...passive aggressive, process mired, complacent. My mother used to tell us that the qualities you most cherish about the person you marry are usually the very ones that will make you craziest. Perhaps the same can be said of cities—this city anyway, whose liberal worldview can look like smugness, whose relative wealth and success can ring self-satisfied, whose very satisfaction has earned it a reputation for the social chill known as the Seattle Freeze.
It makes one wonder if the same can’t be said of hygge—a soul-nourishing attitude toward life that at the same time approaches, alas, a caricature of insular self-absorption. I savored our New Year’s gathering even as I know that, turned another way, one could see it as cliquish and almost gaggably self-satisfied; a cozy celebration whose light within depended directly on the darkness outside.
And boy is it dark outside. Say what you will about hygge, it chose a heck of a moment to drop: a new cultural embrace of cloistered contentment just when the politics unfolding around us scream for spirited engagement. In this oh-so-hyggelig city of ours, perhaps our hygge will distract us; perhaps it will recharge us.
Which makes now perhaps an excellent time to point out that the word chosen over hygge as 2016’s word of the year was post-truth.