A “Danish moment” is upon us. Last weekend, I bought a book titled “How To Be Danish,” from a bookshop that had a table laden with books about Danish and Scandinavian culture, all vying to be Christmas presents. Why Denmark, and why now?
Where we once had “Feng Shui,” we now have “hygge,” a term meant to describe a particularly Danish brand of homeliness and conviviality. It is a feeling already known as “Germütlichkeit” in German, but Danes usually swap their translation “gemytlig,” for their word for “snug,” as in being hygge as a bygge in a rygge. (However, “hygge” is pronounced “hoo-guh,” so that joke doesn’t work.)
In essence, hygge is a year-round version of that relaxed feeling everyone has between Christmas and New Year, meeting up with family, enjoying good food and conversation in the glow of a candlelight, wearing a woolly jumper, drinking mulled wine, relaxing by a fireplace, away from the cold – lots of blankets, candles and food are involved. Step into a branch of Tiger, which is being renamed to the original “Flying Tiger Copenhagen,” and all your hygge needs will be met.
What I realise is, in the UK, we have no time for this during the rest of the year. That the Danes have this as part of their everyday lives goes some way to explaining why the sinister-sounding Happiness Research Institute recently reported that Danes are the happiest people in the world.
Hygge may work for Denmark, but Denmark is a different society to the UK, with its own solutions. Social mobility is not an aspiration, but an (unofficial) high minimum wage means it is not really a thing. It has among the highest tax rates in the world, but numerous, and generous state benefits, such as student grants, mean people are more likely to see what they pay for. Ostentatiousness is not part of the Danish character, and there is a smaller wealth gap than in most countries. In Denmark, your lifestyle is more likely to be shared, and more likely to be given a single name.
Having seen, when I picked up my copy of “How to Be Danish,” books with titles like “Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness,” and “The Little Book of Hygge: How to Bring Danish Cosiness Into Your Life,” these Christmas stocking fillers feel less like guides to how others live their lives differently, and more like self-help books describing how others live better lives than you.
It reminded me of the 1996 TV ad for Ikea, imploring the British public to “Chuck Out the Chintz,” changing tastes more quickly than Sir Terence Conran managed with Habitat. That chintz itself was imported from India in the 17th century is more an indicator of how British culture absorbs influences from other cultures so easily, and so often. Ikea likes to sell us a lifestyle but, for some, it is also somewhere else to go when you are bored with Argos.
Perhaps that is what we should do – take the bits that work, then move on. We watched “The Killing,” “The Bridge” and “Borgen,” and proceeded to make “Broadchurch” and “Top of the Lake.” We like what we like, then make our own version, like we’ll do with hygge.