My husband and I love Scandinavian television. Some couples bond over fantasy football, or long walks on the beach, or counseling sessions; we have Borgen and Klown. Even during times when we’re barely speaking except to bark answers at one another’s terse lines of questioning, all is forgiven when we finally sit down and Netflix something Søren Malling is in.
After the first season finale of Annika Bengtzon, Crime Reporter, we adopted a Swedish holiday called Walpurgis that falls on April 30, when people welcome spring by burning brush and yard waste while drinking reasonably priced wine. It’s the perfect holiday for us: it involves alcohol consumption, a minimal budget, and very little planning, and is predicated on a chore we’d probably otherwise put off indefinitely. Despite its utilitarian nature, we look forward to its arrival each year. The emotional effect of celebrating this holiday is powerful, but difficult to describe. It’s not joy, precisely, nor excitement; it’s warmly nostalgic yet not precious; there’s a quiet coziness about it that sets it apart from more festive holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s a snug feeling. Recently, I discovered that the word that describes this feeling is hygge. Hygge is a Danish word, not Swedish, but the idea seems to permeate Scandinavian life in the same way that Americans think of comfort food. The execution may differ somewhat from region to region, but the concept is universal.
Hygge has had a lot of press in recent months. Like the KonMari method of throwing all your things away, the concept of hygge has suddenly inspired countless lifestyle blogs, Pinterest boards, and hand-crocheted mug cozies, and its allure is heightened further because there is evidently no word for it in English. But unlike saudade, an untranslatable Portugese word for something like nostalgia that caught on briefly but was too esoteric to be universally relatable, everyone seems to know the feeling of hygge. It’s curling up in front of the fire with a cup of cocoa; putting on warm socks after shoveling snow; reading a book on a rainy day. It’s a feeling of warmth and safety and contentment. And unlike saudade, which tends to draw its power from music, hygge can be described as more of a literary notion. Imagine sitting in front of the great fireplace in the Gryffindor common room, surrounded by friends and laughter, or the first time Mary whispered to herself among the matted vines of her secret garden. This overwhelming yet quotidian feeling can be brought about almost immediately just by imagining being curled up in a quiet corner with a good book.
For me, this warm, intoxicating feeling turned into a crippling addiction, and it began with Beatrix Potter.
As a child I practically ached to live in the little stone cottage where Tom Kitten got into so much mischief. I would sit for hours in my room, poring over the delicate watercolor illustrations, copying them, drawing them at different angles, then from far away, my tiny cottage a grey dot among the emerald green hills and slate sky of the English countryside. Sometimes it would be covered in ivy, others surrounded by mature rosebushes. I’d imagine I was sitting in an upstairs nook in a cozy tufted chair, watching the rain fall straight down and bounce off the foxglove blossoms below my window. In fact, my daydream of cozying up in this little English snuggery looked just like what I was already doing, if it were illustrated by Beatrix Potter: sitting in a quiet corner of my room next to a window above my mother’s garden, immersed in a book. This, though I didn’t acknowledge it at the time, was hygge.
As I grew up, I sought out hygge wherever I could, which became more difficult and awkward as a teenager. There were parties and football games to go to, and I did, grudgingly, usually coming up with an excuse for why I had to go home within an hour or so of arriving. I’d immediately change from my grunge uniform of a baby doll dress and Doc Martens to my flannel pajamas, and open the latest Stephen King paperback or start a game of Scrabble with my mom. In the summers I yearned for rainy days, when I could sit and read, uninterrupted, for hours on end, and didn’t feel so guilty about not going outside to play basketball with kids from the neighborhood. Eventually, however, I realized that the phone calls had all but stopped, and the party invitations only came from family members celebrating birthdays. My constant yearning for hygge had effectively ended my social life, as I considered my best friend to be Glenn Gould (1932–1982), whom I could hear mumbling to himself on his recording of the Goldberg Variations and who I felt was the only person who really understood me.
As an adult, I decided to try to break my hygge addiction by immersing myself in city life, and moved to Washington D.C. I immediately got a job as a bartender so that I could hone my social skills and learn how to meet people. But before long, I’d found a 300-sf “junior” one-bedroom apartment—a studio apartment with a closet big enough to stuff in a twin mattress—filled it with books, and created my very own living nook. I’d walk to Second Story Books with an armload of volumes I’d already read, trade them in for another armload on my to-read list, and sit in a chair in the corner for hours, surrounded by dusty piles of “out-of-print, used and rare books in all subjects.” Once again, I came to the painful realization that I had forsaken human interaction in favor of the familiar cozy warmth of hygge. It was time to put a stop to this.
I began making lists of things I knew I should be doing, like going to class and making eye contact with people, and held myself to them. Only after checking off everything on my list each day did I reward myself with an evening curled up in a blanket with a book. I soon began to realize that coming out of the shadows and giving myself responsibilities wasn’t terrifying at all; in fact, it was exhilarating. I found a job at an architecture firm where I thrived; I graduated from college with a well-reviewed thesis and some newfound confidence; I joined an online dating network (back in 2003, when online dating was still definitely sketchy and potentially dangerous) and met my future husband. I felt like a new person, and the time I had spent alone reading felt like a distant memory. My lists became longer, then became outlines for other, more detailed lists, which I relied on for everything from weekly meal planning to lifetime professional and financial goals. Months passed, then years, and I hadn’t read a single book. Then, in what would be a novice and heavy-handed stroke of literary foreshadowing, we left D.C. and moved to the wooded hills of Western Massachusetts, bought a small farmhouse cottage with pastoral views, and had a son. My books became shims and coasters, and sometimes stacked and used as side tables. Some I kept; most were dropped in the local Goodwill depository. I tried my hand at gardening and succeeded for a few seasons, but as the years wore on and I became more focused on balancing work and motherhood, the vegetable garden became overrun with weeds and the shrubs were wild and unruly. Even a tiny cottage can be overwhelming to maintain; we replaced the roof and boiler, remodeled the kitchen and bathrooms, tried to keep up with the mowing and pruning, and still felt like the house and yard were winning. There was always so much to do. Then, when our son turned one, I discovered Owl.
Owl at Home was a birthday gift our son received from some family friends. On the night of his party, I snuggled up with him, cozy and warm in his flannel pjs, and opened the book. As I flipped to the title page I was immediately flooded with a feeling of warmth I hadn’t felt in years. Owl’s tiny forest home, buried in snow and radiating a warm, inviting glow, reminded me immediately of the cottage I’d dreamed of as a child, where Tom Kitten lived with his mother and sisters.
Owl lived alone, and his living room was filled with books and a stone fireplace. Sometimes he’d get so tired at night after drinking his tea that he’d just fall asleep in front of the fire in his tufted wingback chair. Once, he’d opened the door to let Winter in, and the wind and snow blew in the front door and froze his soup. After he’d demanded that Winter leave (though not unkindly, because that’s the kind of owl Owl is) and slammed the door, the fire warmed his soup again, he curled up in his chair with a warm blanket, and all was right with the world. Hygge. I read this book nightly, and we quickly sought out all things Arnold Lobel. Next was the Frog and Toad series, still our favorite. In one story, Frog tells a scary story of how he’d encountered the Old Dark Frog deep in the woods one night, and how he’d escaped. A breathless Toad asks, “Frog, is this true?” “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” says Frog ominously. Our son clutches his fleece blanket, Boo, and asks me to keep the lamp on.
Now, we make hygge part of every day. Not in a precious, mandated way, but because it seems to run in the family to crave this sense of simple security and togetherness. My husband built our son a loft bed for his tiny bedroom, reminiscent of my Washingtonian junior bedroom, that has a cozy reading nook below piled high with pillows. We spend an hour each night here, reading in the soft glow of the lamp, wrapped in Boo and surrounded by stuffed animals. Then, after kissing Rowan goodnight, we curl up on the couch and start a new season of Broen/Bron.
“Momma, will Boo ever lose its snug?” Our son asks one night. I think of how quickly this feeling came back to me after so many years of being absent, just by opening a children’s book. “Not if you don’t want it to,” I tell him.