Seeking hygge in harsh environs

Matthias Buehler, Flickr CC
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

“Hygge (pronounced hue-guh not hoo-gah) is a Danish word used when acknowledging a feeling or moment, whether alone or with friends, at home or out, ordinary or extraordinary as cosy, charming or special.” 
~Alex Beauchamp,

Something changed after the last act of “Hamlet.” The Danes became so mellow that they don’t even mind stepping on all the LEGO blocks they produce each year. If we’re to believe media reports, hygge is both the cause and the solution.

These last few years we’ve heard the word “hygge” a lot more. Looks like “higgy” but rhymes with beluga. It’s a Danish word with no direct translation. “Hygge” is often passed off as a high-end term for “cozy” in fashion and interior design. That’s not exactly what it means, but that’s what makes the most money for people who sell throw pillows.

Whenever a culturally specific word escapes into broader usage you have to be wary of the changes. How much hard edged slang do we hear in hip-hop music? Eventually middle aged women in the accounting department describe themselves as “turnt up” for wing night at Applebee’s. It’s all over then. There’s a reason urban wordsmiths must keep generating new terms.

But hygge is everywhere. It’s at Target. It’s on Pinterest. You can find it in your sauna steam or in the heat emanating from your roaring fireplace. There’s hygge in a lover’s touch, laughter among friends, or in the soft fuzz of your favorite blanket. The only real requirement for hygge is that something nice happen someplace cold.

That puts us Minnesotans in the hygge drivers seat, right?

Well, a travel website, Sperling’s Best Places, recently named the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, as having the third most hygge in the nation, behind Seattle and Portland, Oregon. That’s pretty good, but then again who really wants the bronze medal in hygge? That’s like a bronze medal in cross-country skiing. Scandinavians melt those into plumbing fixtures. That’s all they’re good for.

Sperling’s based the tally on four factors, according to a Jan. 1 story in the Star Tribune: 1) “cozy weather,” as divined from low temperatures, precipitation, and cloudiness; 2) “hygge activities,” like reading, knitting and cooking; 3) the number of public “hygge” venues, like wine bars and cafes; and 4) number of fireplaces.

How did Minnesota fall behind moist ocean towns like Seattle and Portland? Apparently we don’t have enough fireplaces. That’s the real reason. Of course, fireplaces are lousy for actually heating a house. People who experience real winter instead of cool fog would know that. I suppose high efficiency electric boilers aren’t as aesthetically pleasing, but they will keep you alive in February.

But here I go. Sour grapes won’t win you any hygge awards. Stinky fish and old cheese might, but not envy.

What does all this talk about hygge really get us? It sounds like something we should want, but also like something we already have. Can you really get more hygge?

Maybe what we really want is to be more Scandinavian? Maybe we just want angular jaw lines and skinny pants that fit. High end sweaters and affordable health care. Perhaps we just want people to stop filling gaps in the conversation with useless American small talk and phrases like “so … anywho.”

Think of it. We could turn off the television. Mute the self-important talking heads. Unplug our virtual assistants.

We could take pleasure in the simple and surprising comforts of life. Or, as some would say, acknowledge that we are middle aged, vulnerable, and inching ever closer to the open arms of death, whose tight embrace will last longer than any winter.

You know, hygge.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 20, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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