Harmonizing with the Cold and the People Close to Us

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Though many people bemoan cold weather, I want to share my adoration for freezing temperatures and crystalline precipitation. After living in Wisconsin and warmer places such as Texas and Hawai’i, I’ve come to one conclusion: I love Wisconsin winters.

In America, we complain about cold without debate; it’s disliked nearly universally. We separate into our homes and don’t like to venture out unless we must. We rush through our routines, and often pass up opportunities to socialize or participate in activity due to the temps. Business at restaurants and bars slows considerably. Some of us become serious complainers (somehow despising where we live while being free to leave).

This isn’t true everywhere. In Denmark, winter is a very special time with significance and meaning for Danes. The Danish have a word that doesn’t have a direct translation into English: “hygge” (pronounced HYU-gah), relates to words like “togetherness,” “coziness,” and “well-being.” The best attempt to define hygge describes it thusly: “an intentional chilling out of the spirit as a way to harmonize with – not combat or stave off – the darkness of winter, and an intentional meditative time created out of the much-maligned but potentially fruitful malady we desperately call cabin fever.” Hygge can also be used as a noun (“hyggeligt”). Our homes, restaurants and bars, even couches or blankets can be hyggeligts, depending on how we use them. 

Danes have the highest reported happiness in the world (yes, their high income, five-week paid vacations, and universal healthcare might have something to do with it), and hygge might be an essential component. Especially in light of their incredibly long nights and low temps, hygge must be partially responsible. After all, other high-level happy countries, such as Norway and Sweden have words or practices similar to hygge.

The concept of hygge is about coming together as a community to embrace the winter, slow down, and harmonize with it and neighbors, families, or friends. Danes and others familiar with hygge go to great lengths to create physical and mental warmth through candles, conversation, drink, and so on. Largely secular, Danes actually go bonkers with decorating for Christmas and candles can be found in most windows during the holidays.

Thinking about hygge, my holiday season was full of it. Recently, my wife and I rang in the New Year with family at my parent’s cabin. The holiday was very hygge: we bundled up in the living room, sharing champagne and wine, playing with pet dogs, and having some laughs. Candles were lit, and we had a bonfire out on the ice, even though the temperature was below zero. We didn’t complain about the cold or perseverate about the wind; we just put on our heaviest coats and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the frozen lakeside. We saw ducks, mink, bald eagles, and white-tailed deer.

I encourage everyone to stow their understandable negative attitude about winter and try to hygge this week, even as we enjoy this temporary warm-up. Being mentally cozy this winter may make the months enjoyable and make us a little more pleasant to be around. Share a cup of coffee with a family member at a local coffee shop, enjoy a beer with friends at a pub, or build a fire (where permitted by law, of course) to mourn the Packers season. When walking out your door, bundled from head to toe, do so to harmonize with winter, rather than do battle with it.

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One Response to “Harmonizing with the Cold and the People Close to Us”

  1. Melissa Greipp Says:

    Jeff, I couldn’t agree with you more. I have discovered that my daily walks with the dogs, instead of being a chore, are something I look forward to, even in the cold. Walking every day gives me a sense of the slow shift in the seasons and an awareness of my surroundings. A few weeks ago I found myself taking a photo of the glittery snow illuminated by the street lights–the ground seemed to be covered by a million diamonds.

    Your comments about hygge also made me think of how fortunate a person is if they are bilingual. I grew up in a bilingual home, and I learned to be aware of how the words in each language resonated with meaning in different ways. There is a word in Hungarian–mutat–that can’t really be translated into English completely (in my opinion, at least). It means in essence “to show”, but the word has layers of meaning in Hungarian that don’t translate into one word (or even a phrase) in English. Another example is the word “mak”, which means poppy seed in Hungarian. Mak means so many things to me that poppy seed just does not, even if they are the same thing. Mak is elevated in the richness of the homemade pastries that bear its name in Hungarian, and which require us to use a special “mak daralo” (poppy seed grinder) to freshly grind the mak. Poppy seed, I guess, just conjures up an image of sterile lemon poppy seed muffins that a person may buy at the grocery store, in a plastic box, when they can’t think of anything else to pick up for a morning coffee. (Mak and daralo contain accents, but I don’t have the ability to reflect that here.)

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