A Dash of Hygge, With a Side of Christmas

Before I left for Denmark, I had a general idea that the weather was going to be worse where I was headed than in the Philadelphia area. No one could have prepared me for how much worse I should expect, though. Zealand is one of the eastern islands of Denmark which is home to not only my host university, but also Copenhagen. The weather in our area is normally much cooler most of the year than back home, and much more rainy, rainy and dreary. When I arrived, I was surprised not only by the weather, but also by how happy and sweet the Danes I met were, overall.

How was this possible? Back home, people are nowhere near as kind-hearted, friendly and cheery as the Danes I encountered during my journey, but the weather was normally so much better. The disposition of my fellow Americans and myself normally worsened as the weather and lack of sunlight did.

Eventually I realized that it had nothing to do with the weather, as we had all complained back home. It was all in the mindset of the people and the spirit of their culture. The Danes I knew didn’t simply let themselves “go” emotionally, they just learned to adapt, find the good in every situation and make the most each moment. In the late autumn and winter, this was the part of their culture known as “hygge” (pronounced something like “hyoo-geh”).

Hygge has no direct translation to English, but many non-Danes call it “coziness.” My Danish friends laugh every time hygge is referred to this, though, because it’s so much more to their culture than just a temporary feeling. From what I’ve seen and been taught, hygge is a lifestyle choice to indulge yourself with good food, good friends, good family and good memories, all in the warmth of a cozy indoor environment. From what I could see, they don’t complain about what’s outside, they simply embrace what’s waiting for them inside.

Heavier foods, often meat or fish dishes with steamed vegetables, brown and creamy sauces and rye breads are part of the holiday (and sometimes, normal) meals. Common comfort foods for dessert or snacks include aebleskiver (basically pancake balls, sometimes with apples inside, and pronounced something like “ay-bell-skee-vih”) with powdered sugar and jelly, candy and chocolate, ice cream, cookies, brownies, cake and pretty much anything else that’s full of sugar. As I’m writing this, my kitchen mates and I are stuffing our faces with caramel brownies and cosmopolitan ice cream. Mmmm.

Gløgg is also a pretty big part of Danish hygge. Gløgg is a traditional holiday beverage found in different European countries like Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark, and each culture prepares it differently. In Denmark, gløgg is a combination of red and sometimes port wine, rum or Brandy, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, honey, and orange slices, and is normally served with blanched, sliced almonds and raisins. It’s essentially spiced wine with a relatively low alcohol content, but it’s normally sweeter than mulled or spiced wines found elsewhere (and it’s incredibly easy going down).

Since Denmark has a drinking culture comparable (and dare I say, stronger) than that in the United States, I’m sure you can imagine how common it is to see residents and visitors to Denmark drinking it together in the streets of Copenhagen, within restaurants and at home.

Starting around early to mid-November, Christmas markets, called Julemarked, pop up around Copenhagen. Here, Danish gløgg and desserts are served, and there are pop-up stores selling hats, scarves, fudge and other items that can be given as gifts for Christmas. Around this time, Christmas decorations such as garland, Christmas lights and festive fixtures, ribbons and other holiday features are placed around the city and around stores, restaurants and bars.

Tivoli Gardens, a 175-year-old amusement park within Copenhagen, also celebrates the holiday in its own way. In the beginning of November, the park closes for a few weeks to remove the its Halloween lights and decoration displays. During this time, the park replaces its spookier theme with a jolly and beautiful Christmas one. Countless people crowd the front gates on its reopening day at the end of November, waiting to experience this holiday tradition.

Maybe I’m a little biased towards my hosts, but I can safely say that America has nothing on Denmark when it comes to the Holidays.

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