‘Dr Magnus Olsensen’ writes for anyone who loves a woolly blanket, a scented candle – and a laugh, says Victoria Woodhall. Read on for his take on a hygge Christmas
There are nine books on hygge set to be published this year in the UK. The Danish concept of communal ‘cosiness’ has emerged as the biggest wellbeing - and publishing - trend of the year. While we of course love the idea of cinnamon buns, cost blankets, candles, fireside chats with friends and mobile free mindful moments, we also like a laugh. Say Ja To Hygge! How to find your special cosy place , is just that; it’s a hilarious pastiche of the hygge phenomenon and pricks its tendency for earnestness in the way comedienne Bella Younger did the clean eating trend, with her hapless carb-obsessive persona, Deliciously Stella. It's the cool humour gift book of 2016.
‘Author’ Dr Magnus Olsensen from the so-called ‘Institute of Wellbeing’ in Aarhus (conveniently unavailable for interviews because he is on retreat in his cabin near Skagen) tells us in that hygge is pronounced "huhhpg-ghuhrr" and that while the Norwegians claim to have coined the term, "it takes more than bad weather and high taxes to be hygge". There’s a constant needling of the surrounding Scandi nations (Swedes apparently spend their cosy Fridays, "making tacos filled with pineapple and ready-made guacamole. This they wash down with the least hygge of all beverages, Coke, and fistfuls of brightly coloured sweets". National borders matter, but whether they are ‘hygge’ is not explored, although the hyggeness of everything from television, to sledding, to sex, jazz and pets (purring is hygge, barking is not) is put under Dr Olsensen’s microscope, probably while a storm rages outside.
Atmospheric lighting (800-900 lumens to be exact) is key to hygge and Dr Olsensen’s ‘research’ shows that, as well as consuming more candles per capita than any other nation, Danes spend more time shopping for lighting than for food. They invented the design classic the Jyslamp (‘just a lamp’ – the use of debunking ‘Danglish’ words in the book is genius) which has two settings: "one for young lovers in a hurry and another for married couples who simply wish to read." He reminds us that the budget-conscious can find one second hand at around £575 for a model in average condition - a neat swipe at the British obsession with overpriced Scandinavian homeware. You can’t be 'hygge' by shopping at Ikea (which, of course, is Swedish), according to Olsensen. "Hygge requires a commitment to quality and the reassuring feeling that one is surrounded by a small number of beautiful and extremely expensive objects."
You can love hygge and appreciate this book in equal measure. Indeed, when we asked Mr Hygge himself Meik Wiking (yes, real name) CEO of the (actual) Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and author of the best-selling The Little Book of Hygge – the Danish Way to Live Well , what he thought, he said that he found Say Ja to Hygge hilarious. It seems that satire is not dead, it’s hygge.
Scroll down for an extract.
Say Ja to Hygge! by Dr Magnus Olsensen, published by Hodder & Stoughton (£9.99). Buy online.
Want to know how to have a hygge Christmas? Read Dr Olsensen’s guide below.
Jul (Christmas, to non-Danes) is undoubtedly a hygge highlight: snow-bound streets, bobble hats pulled low on the brow, fairy lights in the trees and Terje Dørk’s ‘Cool Jul’ seeping from every doorway. At Christmas, even a simple stroll to the shops to replenish one’s candle supply can create an inner glow, a cosy feeling, a sense that even as you age some things will never really change. It’s also quite common to see people slipping over on the ice, which can be amusing. The fact that families across Denmark light a candle a day throughout December fosters a kind of shared national hygge. Research by my colleagues Jesper Jensen and Agata Pedersen has shown that over the festive period the average Dane will burn through 147 candles. (Subsequent research by Jensen and Pedersen has suggested that candle burning alone will prevent Denmark from meeting emissions targets agreed in Paris in 2016.)
As Christmas approaches, life can get busy. Even for the hygge-ster: there is food to prepare, gifts to buy and, of course, roughly 26 hours a week in midwinter spent dressing and undressing. Try setting aside time to spend with family and friends quietly reflecting on the year just passed – and perhaps identifying and considering some of its most hyggeligt moments. You might also consider carefully wrapping small gifts for work colleagues and quietly presenting them when they least expect it. I deal with hygge in the workplace in chapter 17. However, it is worth mentioning here that attempts to create festive office hygge have generally met with failure outside Denmark. Freja Børnjoka spent a winter working in London before joining the Institute of Wellbeing. She has shocked us all with first-hand accounts of desperate but doomed attempts to foster hygge in Britain through the ‘office Christmas party’. You don’t have to be Director of the Institute of Wellbeing in Aarhus to know that – as Freja reports – excess gløgg and rushed, joyless sex in a vomit-splattered disabled toilet will not lead to the feeling of hygge, no matter how many times you try it. (This is not to say that office relationships, even very short-term ones, cannot be hygge. There have been many such couplings at the institute, with no regrettable consequences.)
One of the few things that can disturb hygge at Christmas is, surprisingly, the Christmas tree. Many are imported from Norway and the presence of Norwegian flora in the home can provoke an unpleasant reaction. Make sure your tree is a genuine Danish product. If you do need to save money, a cheaper Swedish import will probably be safe enough. It is also important that your tree decorations are both sustainable and hugely expensive. As a rough guide, a family should expect to have paid between two and three months’ salary for its collection of Christmas decorations (excluding lights and candles).
In Denmark, our main Christmas celebration is held on 24 December. On that joyful and most hyggeligt of mornings, family members gather in the kitchen wearing their traditional Jul-tide øggriders. A breakfast of porridge and nuts is quickly and excitedly eaten before each person heads back to their room to change into their most hygge-sure outfits. The heating, of course, will have been left off for some days, so that on Christmas Day it is possible to wear hats, scarves, gloves and even snow boots in the home without overheating.
The main Christmas meal is served early in the afternoon. One can expect roast goose served with 400–600g of cranberry jam and a mashed swede. Many Danish families will sit down together to watch En Retfærdig Straf (a 1951 Danish TV drama) after the feast. Then, finally, and with excitement building, comes the lighting of the tree – for many, the best moment of the day. Real candles are taped to the branches and lit more or less simultaneously by the eldest female member of the household. The traditional technique, and the one we recommend, is to hold a lighter in front of an aerosol, spraying the tree with flame.
Everyone is transported back to their own childhoods as they are entranced by this hyggeligt scene. (One member of the family, sadly, is somewhat removed from the fun. The 2012 Jul Act requires at least one person to stand by with a fire extinguisher. Many Danes resent what they regard as state interference with Christmas. But in 2013 there were 74 per cent fewer house fires on 24 December than there had been the previous year. The number has continued to fall.)
When the tree is lit, the dancing begins. Family members hold hands, sing traditional Danish carols like ‘Jøksplåt, Jesu, Jøksplåt’ and become overwhelmed with hyggeness. Gifts are then exchanged, creating yet more hygge, and the feeling is likely to last long into the night.
Taken from from Say Ja to Hygge! by Dr Magnus Olsensen, published by Hodder & Stoughton (£9.99) © Dr Magnus Olsensen