Christmas in Denmark: Ultimate Hygge?

Before the tsunami of Brexisms, Remoaners and post-truths of the second half of 2016, the most beguiling, as well as over/ misused ‘new’ word of recent years had to be hygge.

New, of course, only in terms of the English language, where the word has become an integral part of the  21st century invasion of all things Scandi. And, although, apparently originally imported from Norway, hygge is now is as indelibly Danish as smorrebrod and minimalist design.

But while grisly crimies and woolly jumpers transcend language barriers (with a little help from sub-titles), the unique and unpronounceable hygge has become something of an enigma: depending on your reading and shopping habits, you may well not be able to avoid it, but can anyone actually define it?

Christmas, Denmark, knitting: Julehygge!
Christmas, Denmark, knitting: Julehygge!

Candles, cosy nights knitting socks around a blazing fire sipping mugs of glogg take us so far, but with hygge being interpreted as everything from a state of mind to the ultimate manifestation of Danish happiness, equality and good welfare provision, is it more than a sum of its parts, or just another trendy Scandi import insulating remoaning Guardianistas from the chill wind of Brexit?

A kind invitation to spend Christmas with friends in southern Jutland seemed the ideal way to find out, not least because I would be experiencing Julehygge: hygge with bells on, in almost every respect. Furthermore, with my Danish/British hosts annually enjoying  a traditional Danish celebration on the 24th, a day of rest on the 25th, before welcoming an extended family gathering for a typical British Christmas dinner on the 26th, what wouldn’t be to like?

Copenhagen’s Central Station on the Friday before Christmas resembled febrile chaos, but with an helpful additive routinely absent from its counterparts in today’s British rail terminals: visible, knowledgeable staff eager to help passengers find the right platform and aid the more confused in and out of trains. Although I have  experienced some delays and disruption on Danish Railways (DSB) in the past, this journey, with  spacious seating, a ‘Quiet’ compartment with no audible mobile phones, and fellow passengers willingly vacating their seats to the people who reserved them, might well qualify as train hygge.

Christmas decorations in the medieval streets around RIbe Cathedral
Christmas decorations in the medieval streets around RIbe Cathedral

First impressions confirmed that Denmark, like much of northern Europe, tends to make the most of its midwinter, with small-scale Christmas markets, traditionally-dressed trees and minimalist outdoor lighting evident in most towns and villages.

Again, as elsewhere on the continent, festivities centre on December 24th and provide a more simple and time-honoured contrast with what is now the norm in the UK.  Celebrations begin with family attendance at church and, yet again, I was fortunate that my friends live in Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town.  Generally regarded as the best-preserved medieval town in the country, and famously chronicled by, arguably its most famous son, the photographer Jacob Riis, Ribe’s centrepiece is its magnificent cathedral, the Domkirke. The first Christian church in Denmark, founded in the ninth century, the present building dates from 1150. Extensively renovated in the 19th century, it remains a striking landmark clearly visible across Jutland’s flat, and often bleak, landscape, as well as a worthy monument to the town’s importance in Viking times and the early Middle Ages.

Sunrise on Christmas morning with Ribe Cathedral visible across the flat Jutland heathlands
Sunrise on Christmas morning with Ribe Cathedral visible across the flat Jutland heathlands

The evening then provides the high point of Yuletide celebrations and a clear example of the continuing importance of tradition and family in Danish society. A deliciously tasty Christmas Eve dinner – slow-cooked duck, caramelised potatoes and red cabbage, followed by cold rice pudding, with the latter containing the obligatory hidden almond – was prepared by my host to a recipe handed down from previous generations of his family, before we gathered round the candlelit tree to sing a selection of favourite Christmas songs. Only then was it time to open presents and this too followed a well-established pattern, with the person receiving the most recent present then handing out the next.

Family and friends together, taking pleasure in giving and receiving small, practical gifts (most of the presents were thoughtful, understated items, such as carefully chosen clothes, and yes, did include the obligatory knitted socks and gloves!) candles, a blazing fire, slow-cooked simple food and drink; surely this has to be hygge?

Christmas Eve dinner, Danish style
Christmas Eve dinner, Danish style

Although, rather than trying to find a situation to fit a definition, I am happier with my memory of people at ease with themselves, celebrating modestly and unaffectedly in a way that seems to have changed little over generations.

Certainly, having a day of rest on the 25th was a novel and rewarding experience for me and perhaps the contrast with the commercialised excess that now increasingly defines Christmas in the UK is the best way to sum up Julehygge. I was struck, particularly, by the pride taken in continuing long-held customs  and the lack of any desire to modernise or ‘improve’ the experience by importing bits and pieces from elsewhere. Indeed, while my hosts’ extended family thoroughly enjoyed their British Christmas dinner on the 26th, they appeared slightly bemused as to why we Brits seem to have been keen to absorb so many ‘foreign’ Yuletide habits, from turkey to cranberries, over the years.

Whatever the season, whatever the weather, the ubiquitous Danish sit-up-and-beg: cycling hygge!
Whatever the season, whatever the weather, the ubiquitous, comfortable, familiar Danish sit-up-and-beg: bike hygge!

However, this is not to suggest that the Danes are immune to enjoying some of the our better Christmas  institutions . Pantomime is not generally a staple of their Yuletide, but in recent years, London Toast under the direction of ex-pat (or should that be British immigrant?) Vivienne McKee has successfully introduced the genre to Danish audiences. Now one of the most successful English theatre groups in Europe, its Crazy Christmas Cabarets play to sell-out audiences and I was lucky enough to catch their last Copenhagen performance of the season. Loosely based on Robin Hood and featuring  Sheriff Trump of Nottingham, it was topical and edgy and, in these crazy times, very agreeable to be part of a European audience laughing with us Brits, as opposed to at us.

So, with the holiday over and Twelfth Night past, did I find the key to understanding hygge? Is it a state of mind, or merely a clever marking ploy? A model for our time, or just a trendy, foreign fad? Is it possible, or even desirable, to define? Maybe both hygge’s strength and weakness lie in its very ambiguity: all things to all people, perhaps, or even just whatever you want it to be.

Icy swim, then coffee round the campfire: winter hygge!
Icy swim, then coffee round the campfire: winter hygge!

And, it’s certainly not just about getting through the winter with some cosy, candle-lit nights round the fire.  Even in late December many people were out and about, round the lakes, in the woods, walking, cycling, and even swimming, making the most of what little  daylight there was.  But what made these scenes particularly Danish were the picnic hampers and ubiquitous coffee flasks: yes, even in the depths of winter hygge was alive and kicking: friends and families getting together round the campfire in the middle of the forest, or edge of the lake, eating, drinking, chatting.

Already hijacked by the populist right in Denmark as representing true ‘Danish’ values, in clear contrast to the ideal of hygge as an expression of Danish liberalism, inclusion and equality, it could well become a word singularly appropriate for our polarised age.  Fifty shades of hygge anyone?


Christmas morning, Ribe



Further Information:

Read more about southern Jutland  including how to travel there by train, where to go  and what to see,

Did you like this? Share it:

Grisly Crime, Woolly Sweaters and Bikes, Bikes, Bikes: The Only Way is Denmark this Christmas

So in Durban last week, representatives from around the world finally managed, at the last minute, to secure a deal, of sorts, on emissions targets.

Yes, it’s too little and yes, it’s probably far too late, given that the deal aspires to secure in 2015 what was deemed necessary in 2007, but failed to be agreed in 2009. But, although celebrate is probably too optimistic a term to use, we should at least acknowledge that the outcome does have some positive aspects.

“What is positive in Durban is that governments have reopened the door to a legally binding global agreement involving the world’s major emitters, a door which many thought had been shut at the Copenhagen conference in 2009,” said Bill Hare, director at Climate Action Tracker.

Certainly, compared to the other big summit of last week, at least an agreement was reached and, unlike in Brussels, Chris Huhne did not replicate the wrecking tactics of his coalition leader that left Britain isolated and withdrawn.  Indeed, Huhne deserves considerable credit for keeping up Britain’s profile and showing what a united EU can achieve.

But it is also interesting to compare the media coverage of both summits: even on a generous estimate, it would be at least 80:20 in favour of Brussels, and this, as much as any other factor, illustrates the huge obstacles that the whole concept of climate change has to face in order for it to be taken as seriously as the issue demands.

Yes, the economic situation is dire and indebtedness has to be addressed, but it seems totally bizarre that while economic debt is now considered unacceptable, climate debt is still, as the Guardian’s Damian Carrington describes it, “Put on the never-never.”

And, when this is combined with the government’s prevailing attitude that it is simply too expensive at present to introduce, or indeed continue with, green initiatives, like solar power subsidies, then the environment continues to be pushed further down the agenda: something we might get round to looking at when things get better.

But, to misquote Professor Brian Cox and his former band, things are not likely to get better: certainly not for our environment if we continue to live the way we do. And alarmingly, according to recent polls, an increasing number of people appear to believe that the environment is either less important than the economy now, or, even worse, climate change is a myth and we don’t need to change our livestyles.

As well as being heartbreaking and potentially catastrophic, this attitude is also crazy.  Investing in a greener economy is not just less expensive, but is also one of the few current areas of economic growth that can also attract investment from lenders now too nervous to put money into the “old economy”.

On an individual level, going green, far from being more expensive, can be the ideal strategy to adopt in times of ecomomic hardship. Just today, a pioneering study shows that Europe could cut its greenhouse emissions by more than 25 per cent if we all cycled as regularly as they do in Denmark. A report by the European Cycling Federation (ECF) revealed that the average Dane cycles almost 600 miles each year and if this was replicated throughout the EU, it would have far more effect than the introduction of expensive technological solutions, like electric cars.

In Britain we cycle, on average, a meagre 46 miles per year. So, as well as being mesmerised by Danish crime dramas and their penchant for woolly jumpers, we should also be copying their use of the bicycle as a major means of transportation: not only is it greener, it is also far cheaper to pedal from A to B than it is to take the car.

Far from being an oxymoron, going green in economic austerity is one of the few positive ways we can save money, get fitter, cut emissions and preserve our environment.

So, by all means go Danish this Christmas, but alongside the box set and Fair Isle sweater, make sure there’s a couple of panniers, or helmet, or even a new bike under the Christmas tree – oh and a link to http://www.bootandbike would be nice too.

Did you like this? Share it: