The XX Factor

A Guide to Hygge, the Danish Concept of Coziness That Basically Means “Candlelit Uterus”

Totes hygge.


Hygge is hitting it big this fall. The Danish term, which translates roughly to “the blissful contentment of a gathering of close friends whose easy laughter, muffled in the folds of infinity infinity-scarves, wafts over a reclaimed-oak tableful of pumpkin spice lattes and pine-scented candles while a snowy wind beats merrily at the windowpanes but does not penetrate the bunny-soft blankets encasing the friends’ lithe, Danish bodies,” has inspired several design-and-lifestyle books set to publish over the next few months, each claiming to share the secrets of the world’s happiest country.

Danish actress Marie Tourell Søderberg’s Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness dropped on Thursday with a twinkle-light cover. How to Hygge comes out in January, promising glazed bundt cakes and sparkling white shiplap. In February, we can read The Book of Hygge, which praises the concept’s “emotional warmth” and “slowness.” Then there’s The Little Book of Hygge, written by Meik Wiking, a man with a job title (“CEO of The Happiness Research Institute”) that pretty much drops the mic on all other attempts at hygge how-tos.

One need not remove one’s cashmere mittens to feel these books’ natural appeal. Their target markets—the U.S., in the throes of the Trumpocalypse, and Britain, fresh off a Brexit vote—are starved for the kind of peace and comfort Denmark, with its hyggelig cafés and firmly-affixed social safety net, apparently enjoys in spades. A cozy evening on a fluffy settee, full of hot beverage and some sort of pie or equally buttery pastry, sounds like just the antidote for the past few months of watching a human cigarette and his puppetmaster chip away at the few wobbling buttresses our democracy’s got left.

Unfortunately for native English speakers, the first step to achieving hygge is trying to pronounce it. “Hidge” is what I’ve heard in my mind since coming across an NPR slideshow devoted to the concept a few years back, despite that slideshow’s instruction to pronounce it “hYOOguh,” like the “aooga!” of a cartoon catcaller. The Debrief, a British outlet, prefers “he-yoo-gir, sort of.” Wiking’s book simplifies it to “hoo-ga.” Another plausible pronunciation, I reckon, is “yuge,” though that raises images that defeat the purpose of retreating into a hygge cocoon in the first place.

Once you’ve landed on a pronunciation that envelops your tongue in a warm embrace and gives it a stack of meditative novels it’s been meaning to read, you should imagine your ideal scenario of snuggled-up merriment. Perhaps, as the New Statesman’s Erica Wagner suggests, it’s “socks—not any old socks, but lovely, colourful and (I am sure) spanking-clean socks, encasing toasty toes that are likely to be propped up in front of a roaring fire.” Or maybe, as the Debrief imagines, you’re in a “softly furnished living room, there’s plenty of red wine, the heating’s on, you’ve cooked a banger of a meal, no-one’s got work tomorrow, Midsommer Murders is on the telly.” For one member of Denmark’s marketing board, it’s a specific memory: “In my childhood, my grandmother would pour me a bowl of homemade rødgrød med fløde,” red berry pudding with cream. “I would sit in her blue farm kitchen, and she had curlers in her hair and Louis Armstrong on the transistor radio.”

Sounds lovely—but how could a U.S. resident in a drafty apartment with no fireplace, no grandma, nothing but sweatsocks, and an understuffed sofa achieve such hygged-out bliss? The universal answer seems to be: candles. Candles crop up in nearly every hypothetical invocation of hygge I’ve encountered, and for good reason. Wiking’s book cites the European Candle Association when he boasts that Denmark burns more candles per capita than any other nation on the continent and more than twice as much as the No. 2 country on the list (Austria). I spent a few windy, chilly days in Copenhagen in May and visited a coffee shop endorsed in a Danish-language guidebook approximately thus: “This café is hyggelig af.” Indeed, there were lit candles everywhere, even in the daytime, each surrounded by several years’ worth of melted wax, which made the whole place feel worn-in and homey. The warm temperature and dim light that candles provide give any room the essence of “how we felt when we lived in the uterus,” according to Søderberg. The uterus, any fetus will attest, is the ultimate in hygge.

Here, outside the uterus in America, we’ve been edging toward hygge for years. In addition to the endless popularity of PSLs, seemingly designed to evoke some syrupy approximation of hygge, there’s the return of slow-food cooking, the rise of neo-domesticity in hobbies like knitting, and the snuggles-and-then-some promises of “Netflix and chill.” (Imagine the seductive capacities of “Netflix and crackling fire and chill”!) All aspiring hyggesters in the States have to do is stock up on cartoonishly chunky merino wool blankets, break out the nice bourbon, and make a few best friends by the time snow season hits. For the budget-conscious among us, an afternoon at Yankee Candle should do the trick.