Two years ago I was visiting with my daughter in London. It was a hot September afternoon and as we sipped coffee in her sunny flat, we began to talk about when she would next come home to visit us in Dublin. It looked like it was going to be Christmas before we’d be together again that year.
“You know mum, I look forward to the” ……… and then it sounded like she said hug “I get everytime I come home.” My confused look promted her to explain. “It’s Hygge” she said. “My friend from Denmark says it’s a Danish expression for a kind of hearth-cosy comfort.”
Little did I know how much more I was going to hear about this word Hygge, pronounced like a combination of huge and hug ‘hue-gah’ the Danish way of living which is about atmosphere and experience rathar than about things or wealth. That Christmas the shelves in bookstores were full of cute little books teaching us all how to be Hygge.
I’ve come to the conclusion, in the time since then, that hygge is where the heart is. And isn’t it interesting that the words heart and hearth are so similar sounding and of course, we expect something similar from each – we expect warmth.
On that day in my daughter’s flat, her expression of ‘hearth-cosy comfort’ brought me back to that place where we go when we desire to frame something new, into something familiar - in this case, a Christmas of my childhood.
On Christmas mornings, my family would pack up our car and set off on what was a long journey in those days, to my Grandmother’s cottage in the country. We’d be wrapped up warm for the journey and whatever new toy or present which had arrived under the tree, would have pride of place on the seat beside us. At a particular point in the journey, my dad would suggest we search the distance for the lights of Granny’s cottage through the trees and the excitement as I spotted the smoke rise from her chimney, filled me with the absolute knowledge that we were welcome to this place.
To this day, we grandchildren talk of Granny’s hugs. They were enormous and as she wrapped you in her arms and held you to her bosom, there was no other more perfect place in the world. Then holding you away at arms length and cupping your chin in her hands, her beautiful soft brown eyes would scan your face as she satisfied herself that all was well. We felt precious indeed to her as she addressed us with the Irish term of affection, a stór, meaning ‘my treasure’.
It’s easy for me to slip into that scene again now as I remember how each of my senses were filled up with pure pleasure on those Chrsitmas day afternoons in the cottage. The enormous fire in the inglenook-like fireplace where boiling pots rested on the hearth and kettles hung from the hook over the flames. Oil lamps were glowing and candles lit and over by the window, the table was set and prepared for the feast to follow. As we waited for all to be ready, we children sat up close to the fire and petted ‘Silver’ the spaniel of the same colour who lay comfortably under the big sofa, nose curiously sniffing the air.
There was pleasure for me too in knowing my parents were enjoying being together and for a time, nothing to distract them from the world of everyday life - of work and home-making and mending and keeping our lives ticking over in their fashion. Here we simply bathed in the warmth of a family Christmas.
In the evening after we dozed by the fire, the table returned to its place by the wall, leftovers safely stored away, my aunts and uncles and cousins arrived bringing blasts of freezing air through the open door to cheer us wide awake and ready for merryment, laughter and good humoured banter. And this is where the real magic began…….
Pots of tea in festive tea-cosies would be left to brew and Granny’s Christmas cake proudly revealed and admired. And while small hands would steal the little silver balls from the cake decorations, adult eyes were busy finding a comfortable place to sit for the evening of song and storytelling which inevitably came to pass on an occasion such as this. Dad would pour stout and small whiskey chasers for the men and Mum offered to share her once-a-year babycham to aunties Sally and Gretta. Kitty, my Grandmother’s neighbour would call and take up the place reserved for honoured guests – beside the fireplace. No one questioned it. Kitty was old and we children suspected that she was actually a witch. Poor lady was old and she lived alone and that was enough in those days to give creedence to the suspicion.
We children, taking our new dolls and our dinky cars to the stairway, would place ourselves, one seated below the other down the steps, peeking through the banister rails while we carefully sipped lemonade and quietly opened sweets from their jewel coloured wrappers, never chewing or crunching and making each last forever.
In the flickering flame from the hearth and the soft glow of light from the oil lamps, I can still see the contentment sit comfortably on Granny’s face. He home and her heart filled with love - her treasure all around her. There were songs and recitations and recalling of loved ones long gone. A glass raised in memory and blessings sent forth until the time came to wish ‘God bless’ as the family began to ribbon back out into the night and my sister and I turned upward on the stair to the attic bedroom prepared for us above.
As we slid into the enormous, creaky bed, prewarmed by hot water bottles and a mountain of cosy blankets, my sister and I would murmer sleepy words of contentment to each other. And as we drifted off to sleep we knew without a shadow of doubt that within the thick walls of this ancient cottage, lay the centre of the universe. People came and they went and they shared stories and played music around the fire in the room below, but what we felt that night, was that no matter where we would go in the world or who we would give our hearts to, the feeling of warmth and belonging we felt as we snuggled down to sleep was the measure by which all other riches would forever be measured.
So what is hygge?
Hygge is where the heart and hearth is.
Hygge is when you are made to feel treasured.
Hygge is seeing those you love being shown love by those they love.
Hygge is a better understanding of who you are in the world no matter where you are in the world.
Hygge is created with words and warmth and affection.
Hygge is created when it tends to the comfort of all the senses.
Hygge is a feeling that you are treasure beyond measure and rich beyond your wildest dreams!
It’s blankets and flickering light, and hugs and snoozing and cake and shared festive cheer and chimneys through trees. It’s cousins and old neighbours and blasts of cold air as they come through the door. It’s loving eyes reflecting the sparkle of treasure they see before them…..
My daughter returns home to us for her Christmas visit this weekend. She’s looking forward to the hugs. At least I think that’s what she said. I think she said hugs………