Sitting before the cook stove in winter, fifty below according to the thermometer outside the kitchen window and only a wooden shell between us and a northern Alberta January. Outside, the wind might howl, the snow might drift up to the windowsills, but I was warm and safe in what the Danish call my hygge place. I wonder now if my parents were frantic with worry, three small children, one a babe in arms. If so, I felt none of it, wrapped in a blanket, flooded by a sense of well-being because hair washing day was over and would not happen again in what to me was a foreseeable future. Granny was there, too, with home made bread clipped into a wire toaster held over the stove until one side started burning and, so, for me the sense of familiar coziness will forever include the smell of burning toast.
In Danish, hygge (hoo-guh) is a word for a mood of comfortable contentment. The noun refers to something pleasant and familiar, a psychological condition no doubt brought on by a physical state. It is speculated that hygge might originate from the word hug, which comes from the 1560s word hugge, which means “to embrace.” The word hugge is of unknown origin but is associated with an old Norse term, hygga, which means “to comfort”, which comes from the word hugr meaning “mood”. The word first appears in Danish writing in the 19th Century and has evolved into a cultural trend, appearing in home decorating articles (candles are a big part of it) and wellness references such as, “Hygge — a soothing balm for the traumas of 2016.” Notedly, hygge was one of “Top 10 Collins Word of the Year 2016.”
I encountered the word in a recent writing workshop coordinated by the great Danish poet, Vivian Hansen, where, after some discussion of the term, we were invited to write about what we perceived to be our perfect hygge place, either in reality or fantasy.
Going around the circle, sharing our writing, some with childhood anecdotes or images, some with expressions along the tea and comfort idea, it occurred to me that many writers write from a hygge place, from a place of comfort and acceptance that goes back to childhood, the wellspring of the creative impulse. One workshop member, however, suggested that one person’s place of comfort might might be another’s place of discomfort or distress. This made me wonder. Perhaps we can not have a hygge place unless there also exists a non-hygge place.
My hygge place was cozy and safe because of the threat outside the walls of the house. In other words, I need the outside threat of cold and dark, the enemy at the gates, to supply me with the hygge feeling of being warm and safe inside the enclosure. How Canadian! living in the dark as we do for half of the year. Maybe the people who come through successfully are able to embrace the dark rather than trying to fight it. Maybe some people find the dark to be their safe, cozy place or, at any rate, the place of the childhood spring of creativity.
Maybe some writers start from this place and work their way into a feeling of well-being,
In sharing our writing during this workshop, whether we start from a place of comfort or discomfort, all of us, in contemplating our hygge place, were encouraged to turn inward and explore our inner selves. It was this turning inward that inspired us into creative expression. Whatever the place, it seems we write to get out of it, to rid ourselves of it. For me, the cold is always waiting outside the brown shack, and if I don’t write something the cold will enter. All will be frozen, still, and silent.