Welcome to Rebecca, our first ever guest blogger here at The Sensitive, Bookish Type! She is an MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University (my alma mater!) and an assistant managing editor at Willow Springs Magazine. Her work has appeared in Lit.Cat and Catch. Both of her parents are writers and English teachers, and she spent much of her formative years listening to spirited debates on the merits of Jonathan Franzen.
On the day Roy Moore was almost elected to Senate, I had a few people over to decorate Christmas cookies and drink vodka-spiked hot chocolate. The timing wasn’t intentional. In lieu of a proper dining table or tablecloth, I threw a wide scarf over a card table and lit my absent roommate’s candle without permission. I played Christmas music, using the phone-in-a-coffee-cup trick to make it loud enough, and before any of the guests had even arrived, I congratulated myself on the most hyggelig event I’d ever hosted.
Hyggelig is the adjective form of hygge, a Danish word that loosely translates as a state of coziness, warmth, and contentment. I read The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking in August, which is not a very hyggelig season—no use for cocoa and candles in ninety degree heat. I read it alone in bed, which is somewhat hyggelig but not as hyggelig as say, if I’d read it aloud to my closest friends and family.
Since I wasn’t solidly hyggelig as I read, I daydreamed about the hyggelig experiences I could have if I somehow became Danish, emotionally and financially secure, a good cook, and a friend of Meik Wiking. Wiking describes a perfectly hyggelig experience in the book: sitting in a winter lodge with a few good friends, drinking mulled wine after they’d worn themselves out on the ski slopes. Someone asked if there was any way the evening could be more hyggelig, and someone else said yes, but only if it were blizzarding outside. It was easy enough to imagine myself in the scene, but as an American I felt a little like Ebenezer Scrooge spying through s window as the Cratchit family celebrates a modest but love-rich Christmas dinner.
I studied the photo of Meik Wiking on the back cover. He looked handsome and healthy and very blond, cozy in his thick scarf. His bio said he was CEO of the Happiness Institute. I was suspicious… To me, the Happiness Institute sounds like a place that would manufacture mind-control technology in a dystopian novel. And what kind of name is “Mike Viking” anyway? I wondered if he were even really Danish. I also wondered if he ever brought prostitutes up to his cabin and forced them to perform sadomasochistic acts, a la Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
There’s a reason there’s no Danish Psycho. Danes are ranked the happiest people in the world by several measures. I’ve heard that in Denmark there’s so little crime, mothers will leave their children in baby carriages on the sidewalk while they clean their houses. Wiking mentions that Denmark has universal healthcare, free college tuition, and a robust welfare state, which might contribute to their endemic happiness. Otherwise he avoids being overtly political; he wants to help Americans bring hygge into their lives through candle-lighting, bread-baking, and dinner-party-throwing, not legislation.
At my Christmas cookie party, we didn’t have a blizzard, but we had live internet updates from the Alabama special election. (Any warm gathering of friends feels like shelter from the storm in this political climate.) Doug Jones’s narrow victory over Roy Moore felt like a brief reprieve, a beam of sunlight peeking out through the clouds.
The pleasure of hygge depends on the inhospitable outside, warmth defined by cold, light by darkness. You enjoy your spiked cocoa or mulled wine more in a blizzard. Candles give off the warmest light in a dim room.
Since reading The Little Book of Hygge, I light candles like they’re votives for my own inner peace. I light them before grading student composition papers or before watching Archer with a glass of red wine. I want my candles to elevate the ordinary and turn loafing into a celebration. Sometimes I stare at the little flickering lights and wonder if they’re working any kind of magic.
I thought aloud to my friends how the best Christmas songs are melancholy; they’re usually about having a sad Christmas reminiscing on happier ones. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” being the prime example: Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow. The magic of Christmas is all about finding cause for celebration in hard times, starting with Jesus being born in a stable and all that.
But I didn’t describe it to my friends very well. I think I just said, “The most beautiful Christmases are sad. Like when you have no money for presents and your father is off fighting in the Civil War” (à la Little Women). My friends looked at me like I was a bit of a monster, but really I just wanted to elevate our celebration of Christmas in the age of Trump, like the tragic circumstances of a novel rather than real life.
I told a friend recently all I wanted was a cozy life. He’s a fellow millennial, and we have a lot of fears and longings in common. I used to say I wanted to have adventures, but these days I get more excited about the idea of moving close to home, marrying a man who makes about $60,000 a year plus health benefits, getting a job that doesn’t create a knot in my stomach, maybe in a library. I took The Little Book of Hygge as a how-to guide for building the safest nest and gathering all the people you love inside it. Maybe you can’t have true comfort if you’re not escaping a storm.