"Make yourself at home. Perhaps put the kettle on for a cuppa, or pour yourself a Scotch and curl up somewhere you can be left undisturbed for a little while." So begins the recently-released book How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life, by Norwegian food writer Signe Johansen.
If you don't yet know what hygge is, pronounced "hue-gah," now is the perfect time to get acquainted with the Scandinavian lifestyle trend taking the world by storm. More than 20 books on the subject came out over the course of 2016, and in the last month alone, newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic have been embracing hygge like never before. Thanks to this recent flurry of attention and abundance of new resources, hygge is here to get you through winter.
Simply put, hygge is the Nordic obsession with coziness — like wrapping yourself in a blanket on the couch, enjoying a soothing cup of tea and a pastry, or bundling up to enjoy the bright cold winter air and warming back up in front of the fire with a whiskey cocktail, like the spiced clementine sour in Johansen's new book (see the recipe). Think of it as "a sense of being kind to yourself," Johansen says, whether that's taking comfort in a good book, an intimate dinner party with friends or a brisk walk in the middle of your workday.
"It's about making the best of all the little breaks or moments we have during the day, savoring the intermission," Danish chef and cookbook author Trine Hahnemann, who just published Scandinavian Comfort Food: Embracing the Art of Hygge, says. To practice hygge in her daily life, Hahnemann starts her morning slow. "First thing, I go down into my kitchen and light the candles, make a pot of morning tea, and sit for a bit embracing the beginnings of the day and going through the paper." (Feeling cozy yet?)
"Candles and curling up with a blanket may sound twee," Johansen says, "but there's something to it. We're homebodies. I think that's why our design culture is so appealing. It's minimalist, yet it's warm with lots of tactile fabrics. It feels very calming."
From Finnish design trends to fika, the Swedish-born coffee-and-pastry break, to the emphasis on decompressing in nature favored in Norway and Denmark, hygge is a sweeping, inclusive ideal; there's something for everyone. Though it's been criticized as an elite aspiration that requires the right stuff (cashmere, candles...), Signe argues just the opposite.
"It's really democratic. Everyone can adopt these practices," she insists. "It's also about thriftiness and making do with what you have — not relying on things to make us happy, but experiences and looking after each other."
Danish chef and restaurateur Claus Meyer agrees. "Hygge is not pretentious. It's the opposite. I think that's why it's special to me. In the end, it depends on the human factor."
An anthropologist-turned-cookbook author who has have lived and observed hygge in her native Norway and abroad in her current home of London, Johansen values hygge as a larger social remedy just as much as an individual one, where relief could be a stroll in Hampstead Heath or a peaceful break over sponge cake. Turn off the New Year's resolution alarm bells: The slice of cake or even a stiff pour is all part of a balanced lifestyle. Where Americans try to cut out sugar or abstain from booze this time of year, in Scandinavia, "January is not seen as a time of penance or detoxing or paring things back," Johansen explains. Following lagom, the Nordic principle of balance that's part and parcel with hygge and is hedging to be the next big thing, it's all about indulging within reason.
So not only is hygge the perfect prescription for braving the cold winter months, it's also a realistic approach to those New Year's resolutions. It's "healthy hedonism," Johansen says.
For Hahnemann, it might be spelt rolls with a rye, beetroot and black currant salad — wholesome, nourishing foods that fortify without weighing one down. "We don't use a lot of sugar in things — just enough," Johansen says of iconic Scandinavian baked goods, like cardamom twists. The flavor comes first, the sweetness second. "That's why we use so many spices."
Equally important as enjoying a bite of pastry or sip of mulled wine on your own is sharing meals with friends and family. And, no, it doesn't count if you spend the whole night Instagramming. "If you invite friends for dinner and they are all constantly on their cell phones and not really present, you would say that that wasn't really very hyggeligt," Hahnemann says.
With this emphasis on care for yourself and others through personal moments and communal experiences, it's no wonder the Nordic tradition is striking a chord in these tumultuous times. Whether you're looking at the year ahead, or just trying to make it through winter, now is the time to embrace hygge to the fullest.
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