Searching for hygge: Danes create winter warmth through food, talk

Birgitte and John Christianson
Birgitte and John Christianson photographed in their Minneapolis home Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014.
Dan Olson / MPR News

The hustle and bustle of the holidays, with increased traffic and crowds, can be stressful, leading some to find even festive gatherings a bit overwhelming.

For those who do, Danes in Minnesota have the perfect antidote: hygge.

It's all about "creating a comfortable atmosphere where you just feel at home," Danish native Erik Bruun said.

Bruun and others at the Danish American Center in south Minneapolis say people can start to put themselves in a hygge state of mind through their stomachs.

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"The food is essential and the front and center of all the gatherings," Danish language teacher Dorte Sondergaard said.

But hygge — pronounced "whoo guh" — is more than good food and drink. At its heart, it involves lots of lots of focused conversation — not small talk, but real, nitty-gritty chats about the important things in life.

"The Danes are very anti-superficial," Sondergaard said.

At their downtown Minneapolis home, Birgitte and John Christianson know what hygge is all about.

With coffee, sweets, a small candle on the table, the gentle chime of a grandfather clock — all create just the right environment for conversation.

Birgitte Christianson, who was born in suburban Copenhagen and visits Denmark frequently, agrees that food and conversation are basic hygge elements. Beverages, including wine, maybe some schnapps, are allowable.

Christianson says it's OK to talk about anything — even politics and religion — but within limits. But hygge is undermined by talking too much about oneself or talking over others in the gathering.

"You don't get mad," she said. "And you don't say hurtful things, and at the end of the evening you feel good about the things that have happened."

Danes sometimes use the word, "cozy," to describe hygge to outsiders. But trying to define part of the fiber of Danish culture with words, isn't easy, Christianson said.

There have a been a few attempts by researchers to explain how hygge works in Danish society.

In a 2009 article, "Money Can't Buy Me Hygge," Danish anthropologist Jeppe Trolle Lippet wrote that some Danes see hygge as a central part of creating a good home life for raising children, avoiding conspicuous consumption and generally creating a more egalitarian society.

In many ways, it can run counter to the way of life in the United States, where people can be rushed and competitive, eager to be the first to try something. At a movie theater, Christianson found it odd to see an ad that encouraged ticket buyers to see the movie before their friends.

"In Denmark you'd want to see the movies with your friends," she said. "You wouldn't want to be the one that saw it before your friends."

Christianson and her husband have plenty of hygge-like gatherings with non-Danish American friends in this country.

At the Danish American Center, Gitte Mohr, also born and raised in Denmark, said the search for hygge is worth the effort. It makes people feel better, she said.

"They don't feel like uptight or something," she said. "They just feel relaxed and cozy and are interested in knowing a little about each other."