Cycling through Copenhagen on my route home from classes, I have keenly observed the progression of Christmas-market-construction and the steady putting-up of the Christmas lights around the city as we entered the festive season. On my way home, as the daylight ebbs away, I see the comforting amber glow of filament light bulbs and candles coming from café windows. It may be cold, dark and damp, but the Danes have a solution: hygge. Copenhagen is the capital of hygge, ‘the art of creating intimacy’, and this is most hyggelig time of year. It would seem that Denmark is the place to be at Christmas. The Danes love traditions and, at this time of year, there are even more of them. In the lead up to Christmas, Danes will attend many Christmas luncheons and make homemade decorations. When Christmas day finally arrives, there is traditional food, as well as many ritual activities such dancing around the Christmas tree. The Danes have mastered that Christmassy spirit of warmth and togetherness during the festive season, and I have been lucky enough to see exactly how.
The Christmas ‘lunch’ is one of the most anticipated, as well as the most formidable, events of the Danish calendar. These ‘lunches’ can last 6 to 8 hours and can get quite unruly – a daunting prospect for a newcomer such as myself. This is an opportunity to gather around the table with one’s family, friends or colleagues and enjoy traditional food and each other’s company. It is also an opportunity to consume copious amounts of snaps (Danish for akvavit) and hence the temporary suspension of office hierarchies and social norms. The main ingredients for this special occasion are fish, meat and the aforementioned snaps. The meal kicks off with a fish course – mainly herring of prepared in different ways – pickled, or in curry sauce. Then comes the meat. Pork upon pork … fried sausage (medisterpølse), meatballs (frikadeller), roast pork and bacon with fried apples, not to mention liver paste with mushrooms and bacon. Usually, you will see this served with red cabbage, beetroots and boiled potatoes- and the snaps to help it go down. Everyone raises a “skål” (cheers) and perhaps sings a traditional drinking song and downs it in one go. I always feel just slightly concerned when we haven’t yet finished the fish course and there have already been three rounds of skåls.
Copenhagen is the capital of hygge, ‘the art of creating intimacy’, and this is most hyggelig time of year
In true Scandinavian style, Christmas decorations in Denmark are minimalist and nature-inspired. The main colour scheme are the Danish colours of red and white as well as silver, gold and green. Most of the time spent at home during the Christmas period is during the hours of darkness so candles are essential. Candles are effectively the embodiment of hygge. The advent calendar is a Danish version of a Christmas candle. It is painted like a tape measure with dates from one to the twenty-four for each day of December leading up to Christmas. The advent candle is lit daily on each day of December and burnt down to the corresponding part. Importantly, it is lit when the family or flatmates are together. The candle light fosters togetherness by creating a natural point and time slot to gather. Also, no Christmas season is complete without a festive craft session where families or groups of friends make their own Christmas decorations. You can imagine the scene, sitting together in a little cave of candle light surrounded by the sound of cheesy Christmas classics and the smell of gløgg (mulled wine) and æbleskiver (ball-shaped pancakes served with jam and icing sugar) making julehjerter (Christmas hearts). These woven paper hearts are made out of two cut-outs of paper, woven together to make the heart shape and are not often seen outside of Denmark.
So, the Danish population has recovered from their julefrokost, their houses are fully hygge-fied with handmade Christmas decorations. The advent candle has burned down to the bottom. It is the 24th of December, and the culmination of the festive period. So how do the Danes celebrate when the day actually arrives? The day begins calmly with final food preparations, making the traditional rice pudding (risalamande). At midday, a lunch of pickled herring on rye bread. In the evening, it’s off to church for mass (4.4 million out of 5.5 million Danes are members of the state church). Then it’s home for dinner. On the menu is duck with prunes and caramelised potatoes followed by the rice pudding prepared earlier. Before everyone can finally open their gifts, a tradition that is both quirky and adorable must first occur. Family members stand around the Christmas tree, holding hands and start to sing Christmas hymns like ‘Dejlig er den himmel blå’ (’The Lovely Blue Sky’) as they walk around the tree. I love the intimacy of this tradition, standing in a circle and singing in unison (even if it might feel a bit awkward and you don’t quite remember the words) really evokes the spirit of hygge.
Denmark is continually ranked among the world’s happiest countries in the World Happiness Report. So far, I’ve been living here for four months, and I’m starting to get a feel for why. I think that hygge and its focus on fellowship could well be part of it. Over and over again, the quality of our relationships has been shown to be among the best predictors of our well-being. Furthermore, these three Christmas traditions are hyggelig in themselves, but they are also hyggelig because they are traditions. Traditions awaken fond memories of past times shared together. Even though good food, candles and festive decorations can help to create hygge, it really isn’t about the material things. It is about a shared experience with people we care about. Perhaps we can learn something from the Danish way of doing Christmas and put some hygge into our own festive season.