An attempt to define Danish ‘Hygge’

Photo: Morten Svane

Sitting by the fire on a cold winter night, wearing your favorite oversized sweater, while drinking hot chocolate and reading a book surrounded by candles. That's definitely "hygge".

Hygge is also about surrounding yourself with the things that make life good, like friendship, and laughter, as well as more concrete things like warmth, light, seasonal food, and drinks. 

Hygge is usually inadequately translated as ‘cosiness’. But it is so much more than that. One of the most common questions we come across in Denmark is visitors asking, “what is hygge?” But hygge isn’t just a word; it’s a concept, and as such, there’s really no direct translation.

The Danish word 'hygge' is pronounced 'hoo-gah' in English.

A few years ago, if you asked a group of Danes to translate the word "hygge," they would probably become a bit hesitant. Some would fall back on 'cosiness' to define it, others would say that it's about the sense of contentment that comes from being with friends and family. These days, the term has become so all-pervasive that it was short-listed for the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year. Find a photo on Instagram of a candlelit bar and a #hygge hashtag is almost obligatory. 

Friends meeting in the street might say that it has been hyggeligt to see each other, and someone who is fun to be with can be called a hyggelig fyr when he would hardly be described as a ‘cosy guy’. The truly emotive depth of the word hyggelig is best captured by considering its opposite, uhyggeligt, which means anything from cheerless through sinister to downright shocking and grisly.

To have a hyggelig time is social nirvana in Denmark. Candlelight is used to encourage a hyggelig atmosphere. In fact, the Danes are mad about candles and use them everywhere, both in public places like cafes, stores, bars, restaurants, and in their homes. The dim lighting helps to soften the clean, uncluttered surfaces and uncompromising white walls that are typical features of Danish living rooms. Everyone’s ideal is to have a Christiania kakkelovn (antique stove) or an open fireplace and feel the warmth from its hyggelige glow.

The Danes fight their cold and dark winters with their best weapon: hygge, and the millions of candles that go with it. Ever been to Tivoli Gardens or walked the streets of Copenhagen during the Christmas season? Then you know what Danes can do with lighting and mulled wine (known in Denmark as gløgg).

Though hygge's prime seasons are fall and winter, it also strives in the spring and summer when friends and family come together to enjoy each other's company.