hygge ⟨n⟩ cosy atmosphere

I feel a bit remiss in not having written about hygge yet, that most quintessential value of the Danish experience, or at least the most cliché. It is almost impossible to overestimate the enthusiastic use of this word in Denmark. Hygge is not just a noun, it is a verb and adjective, as well as being used in many compound nouns. We have received Danish party invitations using no less than four different conjugations of the word hygge. Hygge is having a bit of a moment in the English speaking world, with a proliferation of publications extolling its virtues. We may have finally reached peak hygge, with Slate’s bizarre headlinescreenshot-4Hmm, I wouldn’t exactly translate hygge as “candlelit uterus’. Literally hygge is a cosy, convivial atmosphere. Generally hygge is something you create with other people, although some will say it is possible to be hygge on your own, curled up by a fire with a good book for example.  So while Danes love candles, and mood lighting, and while we in English talk about a ‘womblike atmosphere’ as being somewhere comforting and cosy, I have to say I find the idea of a candlelit uterus quite far from hygge. In fact I would say I find the idea quite the opposite – uhygge.

Halloween decorations are hygge

Uhygge is the much less well known word. While u is a prefix akin to “un”, uhygge doesn’t mean uncomfortable, or uncosy, it means creepy or scary. So ghosts are uhygge. Haunted castles are uhygge. Halloween is uhygge.

Halloween has been embraced enthusiastically by Danes, going from something that happens in America, to taking over the shops for the month of October, in roughly a decade. The non-American English speaking world seems to have controversies every year over the proliferation of Halloween celebrations and paraphernalia. I’m sure plenty of Danes feel the same. Yet, there is something about Halloween that seems to mesh well with the social character of Danes. They love to dress up. Why not have another reason to party dressed as a skeleton? Despite the sugar taxes, they love to eat sweets. They also already have one holiday based around burning witches – Sankt Hans Aften.

I’ve never really been into Halloween. It seems out of place in the New Zealand and Australian spring. Here, though, the days are getting shorter, the nights longer, and the leaves are falling off the trees. It is the only time of year pumpkins (a relative newcomer here too) are readily available in supermarkets. It is the time of year that people start to hunker down inside, light candles, sip drinks and do what they call hygge sig: have hygge with each other.

My children have a favourite TV character Hr. Skæg, whose shows teach the basics of arithmetic and literacy in a light-handed way. We have his ABC book and CD, and one of our favourite pastimes is to sing along. You could say, it’s a very hyggelig way to spend time. One of his songs is about a ghost who haunts his friend, ultimately scaring him to death so that they can haunt together, because
‘det hyggeligste er/ at være uhyggelig med sin ven’
The most hygge thing is to be uhygge with your friend.

I think that lyric says more about Danish culture than is immediately apparent, beyond the assumption that it is perfectly appropriate for preschoolers to sing about wanting friends to die. The Danish winter can be very depressing. It is dark and cold. Historically Danes were very poor. The coming together of people inside, in warmth and light, with music and hyggespise (comfort food) was the antidote to this. They even have a word for Christmas atmosphere: Julehygge. But they also have a sense of humour that leans towards the dark side. Two of my favourite Danish films are great examples of this: Adam’s Apples, and In China They Eat Dogs. So Halloween with its uhyggelig decorations – the witches, the ghosts, the candlelit pumpkins – slots right in.

My son’s daycare have had a whole week of Halloween celebrations. They ate a Halloween themed menu, serving up dragon’s teeth (rice), kitten brains (meat), even vomit (porridge). They made decorations. They dressed up on Friday. They even led the children on a haunted house style tour of their building, with one of the staff dressed up as a witch. MJ definitely found the tour a bit uhyggelig; he has emphasised that the witch was ‘only Connie, and she doesn’t eat children’. Which makes me wonder exactly what he was told at the time…

I’m what I would call craft-challenged. It’s alright, nobody’s perfect. MJ is really interested in craft at the moment though, so I am trying to give him the opportunities he desires to explore creativity. Halloween has been a great excuse. The kids loved the cornflour slime I made last week. One day we spent his sister’s nap making uhyggelig monsters from fluffy pompoms and glue. I thought we might do more, but the next day he chose to build a rocket ship, which was fine. It is rare for the stars to align the way they have, but we’ve had a few really good, fun, creative, hours together.

The last few weeks have been challenging. The temperatures are dropping. We’ve had doctors’ appointments and our first winter colds. We really have had some particularly challenging behaviour, with AJ discovering the word ‘No’ and even worse, MJ going through a more stubborn than usual phase. We’ve had more tears and yelling than anyone likes. This makes all the good stuff even more important. Sometimes parenting can be like a compliment sandwich; you’ve got to fit some fun on either side of doing terrible things like dressing and washing your children.

Joking about eating vomit for lunch is not really my cup of tea. Playing with cornflour slime with two kids might make an enormous mess. Making gluey monsters is even worse. But these are all things that make my son happy. That Hr. Skæg is right. Sometimes the most hygge thing really is to be uhyggelig together.

2 thoughts on “hygge ⟨n⟩ cosy atmosphere”

  1. I’ve been following the Anglo discovery of hygge with interest, so it’s great to get your take on it. Thanks!

    Did you see Sandi Toksvig talking about it on the Norse ep of QI this week?

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