In the list of new words to enter the dictionary in 2016 - Trumpism, Brexit, post-truth - hygge seems somewhat out of place. Or does it? Like Trump and Brexit, hygge is definitely not just for Christmas. And like all of those words, a cute and friendly exterior hides unpleasant truths.
By now you've most likely been made aware that hygge is the untranslatable and somewhat unpronounceable Danish word for cosiness. That it will make your life better and ensure you are as happy as the Danes inexplicably seem to be in all those surveys of the happiest people on Earth. You've also been reliably informed in literally millions of books this year that buying candles, knitwear, blankets, yoga retreats, bicycles and cakes will ensure your hyggelig happiness. Since Sarah Lund's Faroese knitted sweaters generated more attention than the vicious crimes in the Danish TV series Forbrydelsen (The Killing, although ironically killing is Danish for kitten) we've been on the unavoidable path to being sold home insurance in the name of hygge.
Hygge is untranslatable because it's a state of mind. Danes find hygge when they share food and drink (kaffe og kage, or perhaps øl og pølser, nothing fancy) indoors (never out there where bad things could happen) with family or close friends (never strangers or outsiders), when they can tease and joke (never taking themselves too seriously or being taken too seriously by others). Everyone is equal, because lighed (equality) is very important to Scandinavians. Candles help create atmosphere, as do blankets to keep out the winter cold. And furniture must be comfortable but not too showy (Contrary to the Swedish, flat-packed type, classic Danish furniture is normally simple, but outrageously expensive). The state of mind is best summed up by the title of Jeppe Trolle Linnet's article "Money can't buy me hygge". His study showed hygge has connotations with safety, home and family. This ironically makes it perfect for advertisers trying to get people to buy just about anything with their money.
The scene above is typically Scandinavian, by that I mean it dates back to Viking times, when a day's raping and pillaging was followed by a meal around the fire, which protects everyone from cold as well as whatever might be out in the wild. Hygge depends upon lighed, which is problematic for reasons best captured in the Janteloven (Laws of Jante), the fictional, but frighteningly accurate, representation of Scandinavian society that is more quoted than actually read. The list of ten rules instructs you not to think you are better than anyone else or that anyone cares about you. Happiness comes from conformity and middelmådighed (mediocrity) because anyone trying to be different is seen as having ideas above their station and damaging the harmony.
In our study of hygge in online communities in Denmark, my colleagues and I found people using the term when being very considerate to those they identified as similar and to justify abuse and racism towards anyone they saw as different. People try hard to maintain harmony between those they trust, such as family and friends. They take care to keep conversations friendly, light-hearted and safe for everyone. For those outside of this hyggelig space (whether physical or virtual), anything goes. We found people creating hygge by sharing "a hyggelig little racist joke". At first thought there seems to be little connection between racism and hygge, just as buying home insurance may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but it makes sense. Home insurance, like racism, offers some sense of protection from the dangers that lie outside.
This is a year when Britain voted for isolation from Europe, irrespective of the economic and social costs. It is a year when America voted for a President promising to build metaphorical barriers to trade with other countries and literal walls with neighbouring countries. And only a year after Denmark's own elections gave the anti-EU, anti-immigration Danske Folkeparti the second largest number of seats in parliament. 2016 has been a terrible year. An unrelenting stream of bad news, when every day we seemed to wake up to find the unthinkable had happened. Amid all of that, who wouldn't want to huddle around a fireplace with their family and friends and just block out everything? So with all that as the background, it seems like the best option this Christmas is to insulate ourselves from the outside world in search of hygge. But just like Brexit and Trumpism, remember, the effects of this hygge may be for life, not just for Christmas.