How to Hygge – Mpls.St.Paul Magazine

Hygge, (hoo-gah) the Scandinavian concept of coziness, has become a cultural phenomenon in recent years. It’s a sort of winter buzzword that evokes mental images of wool socks and fireplaces. The concept originated in Denmark and is a steadfast practice in Scandinavian countries, but has been increasingly commodified in the U.S. Given our state’s Scandinavian roots and the climate to match, has Minnesota adopted hygge as more than just a passing phase?

What Is Hygge?

According to Benjamin Bigelow, a professor of Scandinavian studies at the University of Minnesota, hygge is about personal pleasure, coziness, and warmth.

“It’s compensation for the rigors of modern life,” he says. Hygge is about finding safety, warmth, and community—especially during the winter months. The term evokes seeking out a sense of coziness and peace that makes winter tolerable. 

The concept didn’t start trending until the mid-2010s, as evidenced by its presence on Oxford’s word of the year shortlist. But the term has origins that date back to the Napoleonic wars, according to Bigelow. After a series of losses suffered by the Danish Kingdom, they started to draw back their imperial efforts and look inward at their own culture, thus the beginning of hygge. 

“It becomes this very small-scale individual and family happiness and domestic bliss as opposed to the expansionist, outward looking, empire building activities that the Danish Kingdom had been involved in for the previous centuries,” Bigelow said. 

Hygge is practiced today as an investment in community. “Hygge has to be practiced with others,” Bigelow said. It’s a communal tradition, generally involving family and friends. For the Danish, where pastry culture is huge, there’s also a self-indulgent element, where eating sugar and enjoying rich foods informs the practice. 

When talking hygge, it’s important to recognize that Sweden and Norway have their own parallel words and accompanying traditions—kos and mys, respectively. Swedes practice fredagsmys, which literally translates to “Friday Cozy.” They let go of the work week and spend time with family, generally over tacos. The tradition rose in popularity in the 1990s, when the Swedish chip company OLW began airing advertisements encouraging Swedes to stay in and eat chips, in the name of fredagsmys. Old El Paso had the same luck with advertisements in Sweden, and as a result they’ve added a Mexican food element to their Friday Cozy. Instead of Taco Tuesday, the Swedes do Taco Friday with family and friends, the tradition has made them the one of the largest consumers of Mexican food in Europe. 

Kos, and koselig, on the other hand, is less about snacking, and instead takes a well-balanced approach to the darkness and cold by combining elements of coziness and relaxation with an appreciation for nature. 

Minnesota, the Hygge State?

Minnesota has extensive Scandinavian roots, with a long history of Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish immigration to places like Lindstrom and Chisago County. Grand Marais even has an Annual Hygge Festival, where people can take part in activities that foster a sense of hygge. But even with our Scandinavian history, hygge is not necessarily a culturally ingrained practice.

One possible reason for this is that it wasn’t a big cultural phenomenon when the largest waves of immigration were happening. According to Ingrid Nyholm-Lange, the director of experience at the American Swedish Institute, the whole concept rose to popularity within Scandinavian countries in the 1990s. Minnesota’s largest wave of Swedish immigration spanned from 1850 to 1930. Norwegian immigration followed a similar timeline, whereas Danish Immigration was at its peak from the late 1860s to the turn of the century.These waves of immigration long pre-date the rise of hygge, which wasn’t added to the Swedish dictionary until 2006. 

According to Nyholm-Lange, an uptick in advertising played a big part in the popularization of these terms. The sudden rise in advertising created a new ability to inform cultural trends, which meant concepts like mys could be bolstered by companies that could profit off of the cultural capital. 

At Ingebretsens, Minnesota’s flagship store for all things Scandinavian, owner Julie Ingebretsen weighed in on her family’s experience with hygge. Her grandparents immigrated to Minnesota from Norway and Sweden and started the store. Ingebretsen says her grandparents never brought up hygge, mys, or kos. At least anecdotally, it feels like hygge is relatively new for a lot of people. 

Despite hygge’s recent grip, people enjoy shopping to cultivate it. At Ingebretsen’s, they sell plenty of goods related to hygge, providing material opportunities for people to take part in the cultural tradition. Under the hygge section on their website, they sell multiple books on the concept, as well as candles, sweaters, embroidery kits, hats, and blankets, so people can experience their own version of the tradition. At the American Swedish Institute, they sell a few hygge books and a bunch of board games, designed to create the sense of togetherness necessary for the practice. 

Adopting Hygge 

So, Minnesotans weren’t necessarily ahead of the worldwide hygge craze, despite our Scandinavian edge. It does, however, appear that Minnesotans have been eager adopters of the practice, or unknowingly already engage in some hygge-like practices to cope with winter. Think about hosting friends during winter evenings, staying in for a movie, or going ice skating, these small acts of community and coziness are essentially hygge in action. 

Up in northern Minnesota, in Cook County, hygge has become an important part of winter, especially February. The Annual Hygge Festival, which began in 2017, celebrates all things cozy and communal, it brings people together to hike, snowshoe, craft, and even play cribbage. Kjersti Vick, a public relations director for Visit Cook County, says the festival started when she began posting about hygge season during February. Local businesses began contacting her, wanting to put together something that celebrates winter and community. “I like that it puts in a singular word all the words that describe this time of year,” she says. 

“It almost requires cold, hard winters to make sense,” says Bigelow. Minnesota has a similar climate to some of those cold, dark Scandinavian states, which creates parallels between recreational activities, like hopping in a sauna, making it a good climate to pursue hygge

Despite our apt climate and heritage, hygge is not something we can necessarily achieve. “You can’t separate hygge from the entire social model it’s a part of,” Bigelow said. American culture tends to prioritize productivity, work, and individualism, whereas hygge sets definitive boundaries around excessive work, and requires community and relaxation. 

“The important thing about hygge is that it’s part of this whole social system that includes social welfare programs, and a very robust social democratic tradition,” Bigelow said. The underlying politics of the Nordic model has allowed relaxation, family, and coziness to thrive. According to Bigelow, things like subsidized daycare, paid parental leave, and larger social safety nets have given Scandinavians the opportunity to institutionalize these cultural values. Even though our tough winter climate gives us the opportunity to practice hygge-like traditions, our social and political systems don’t necessarily support the true essence of hygge: relaxation. 

Ironically, hygge is a concept that has been extensively packaged and sold in the United States, despite it being a value driven practice in Nordic countries. Any Patina in the Twin Cities likely has something hygge-esque, like candles or an assortment of Nordic-looking wool items. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Items like The Little Book of Hygge or the Hygge Game can serve as an entry point to the mindfulness that hygge encourages. 

“It doesn’t bother me that you can buy a hygge game… I don’t think it diminishes the word, I don’t think it diminishes the culture,” Nyholm-Lange said. “One of the ways that in the United States we understand things, might be through a retail opportunity or a commercial opportunity. It’s still helping people understand this idea of being cozy at home with friends and family.” 

Hygge’s commercialization and sudden rise to cultural prominence has given people from all over the world a chance to understand and practice it on a deeper level. The pandemic has also provided an opportunity to re-evaluate our relationships with work and home. For some, it may have been a passing phase, but for Minnesotans, it’s something that might help people get through cold, lonely winters, or reconnect to our heritage. 

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