'So pervasive does ‘hygge’ seem, it appears almost impossible to escape the associated allure of woollen jumpers, hot drinks, and artisan linen sheets'

Justin Kern (Flickr Creative Commons)

On being 'hyggelig'

Matt Pickles

The idea of 'hygge' as cosy domestic bliss has become popular across the world, particular in the winter months. But in a guest post, Daniel M. Grimley, an expert in Scandinavian music at Oxford University, explains that the real meaning of 'hygge' is not quite as simple.

'The evenings lengthen and the air grows chill. Through a window can be glimpsed candles flickering upon an old wooden table, family and close friends gathered round an open fire, gentle conversation or contented quiet, and a feeling of homeliness and security. For a moment, at least, the world seems at peace.

As the winter gloom descends once more, and global events take a dark turn, it is hard to resist such cosy images of domestic well-being: that intimacy and comfort which Scandinavians call ‘hygge’. So pervasive does ‘hygge’ seem, it appears almost impossible to escape the associated allure of woollen jumpers, hot drinks, and artisan linen sheets.

‘Hygge’ has become a marketing tool promoted in glossy magazines and commercials, a designer brand that belongs to an imaginary Scandinavia of elegant furniture, crisp nights, and soft indoor lighting: a land of fairytale and nordic myth.

Far from being simply a global trend, however, ‘hygge’ is a historically contingent term that has baleful consequences for our contemporary predicament. Defining precisely what ‘hygge’ means, for non-Scandinavians, proves frustrating. Even its pronunciation remains a challenge. In Danish, it is spoken softly, and consists of two syllables: the final vowel is only lightly stressed, whereas the first is closer to a French ‘y’ than the Anglo-German ‘u’.

The word is a noun: the adjectival form is ‘hyggelig’. It shares the same etymology as the English ‘hug’, from the old Icelandic ‘hugga’, meaning to embrace or to soothe: it is intimately linked, in other words, with the body and with domestic space as a protective (and protected) realm.

In its more contemporary usage, ‘hygge’ emerges in nineteenth-century Danish literature as part of a more integrated sense of community and belonging (‘samfund’ or ‘fælleskab’), especially following the Prussian-Danish wars in 1848 and 1864. This shift of emphasis is consonant with the reformist philosophy of thinkers and theologians such as Nikolai Grundtvig, and also with Scandinavia’s increasing awareness of its geopolitical position: a largely agrarian society that had come relatively late to industrialization, and which found itself on the edge of more belligerent imperializing powers.

In our own post-industrial condition, such inward domesticity has begun to appear especially attractive, and assumed an increasingly nostalgic character. Its legacy is still felt in Nordic architecture and design, which largely eschews the monumental in favour of a more human sense of size and shape.

It has similarly helped to sustain the much-admired Scandinavian welfare model, with its principles of openness, equality, and humanitarianism. Through this doctrine of care and support that the idea of ‘hygge’ so powerfully embodies, Scandinavia has been a global beacon, a focus for the homely celebration of fellowship and shared responsibility upon which the world increasingly depends.

The sense of community upon which ‘hygge’ has relied, however, has not always seemed so passively benign. As Paul Binding’s brilliant recent biography has shown, many of H. C. Andersen’s short stories, paradigmatically ‘The Little Match Girl’ (‘Den lille pige med svovlstikkerne’), sharply juxtapose evocations of cosiness and intimacy alongside astonishing emotional cruelty and psychological pain.

Generations of artists and writers, including Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Munch, Selma Lagerlöf, and August Strindberg, railed against the suffocating effect of the social conformism and complacency that dominated nineteenth-century nordic society, and sought refuge or relief in biting satire and opaque symbolism.

There is little sense of ‘hygge’, for example, in the chilly paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi or the ‘blue’ interiors of Harriet Backer, or in the fiery social critique of authors such as Martin Anders Nexø. The great Danish composer Carl Nielsen, whose songs are still sung daily by children across Denmark, once described himself as ‘a bone of contention, because I wanted to protest against all this soft Danish smoothing-over, I wanted stronger rhythms, more advanced harmony’. A less ‘hyggelige’ artistic manifesto is difficult to conceive.

Here, then, lies a more complex and critical engagement with ‘hygge’: in the recognition that its warming embrace, and the idealized domestic cosiness with which it is intertwined, can swiftly become stifling and claustrophobic. The enclosure that is so central to the feeling of being hyggelig can unexpectedly have the opposite effect, shutting out the world and excluding people more rapidly than it gathers them together.

This is a more telling indictment of contemporary Scandinavia, as it struggles to address global crises that are beyond its control. The impression of protected domestic space, and of turning inwards, can lead to hardened physical boundaries and political borders, especially if that space appears compromised or threatened.

Within this notion of ‘hygge’, as it has been popularized and disseminated, must also lie the waves of xenophobia and violence, and the rise of the far-right, that have increasingly fractured the Scandinavian political landscape, and which have stretched nordic notions of tolerance and open-mindedness almost to breaking point.

Perhaps, then, a new kind of ‘hygge’ is required, one less tied to complacent notions of lifestyle and material comfort. Its proper meaning and value lie not in elegant furniture, soft candlelight, and high-end designer knitwear, but in the need to extend human warmth and responsibility.

Those friends and family who should be drawn close are not those to whom we are most closely related, but rather those from whom we feel most different and remote. This is a different kind of domesticity, and a different sense of homeliness. As winter deepens, and the darkness grows once more, reaching out becomes increasingly imperative.

It is only then that such images of comfort and security can genuinely regain their glow, and that Scandinavia can begin to feel ‘hyggelig’ once more.'