Here in Western Washington, winters are dark affairs. The sun sets by five o’clock from November to February, though the house begins to darken long before that. In the mornings, it is often still quite dark when people leave for work and children head to school. Some days, because fog or our famous cloudy weather, the sun never really shines at all, although we know it’s there, just beyond the sheen of silver we call sky.
In other parts of the world, winters are icy and demanding, with driveways to shovel each morning. Growing up in the lake effect snow region of upstate New York, I remember taking a kettle of hot water to the car each morning to pour over the doors so they would unfreeze enough to open. Leaving the house in winter meant multiple layers of clothing, clunky boots, and an extra pair of shoes shoved in my backpack so I’d have something dry to wear at school.
It’s understandable that some people simply can’t stand winter weather. It’s dreary, dull, and often quite uncomfortable. What’s interesting is that in one of the coldest, darkest portions of the world, there are whole countries of people who actually look forward to it.
If you’ve never heard of hygge (pronounce hyoo-ga), you’re in for one stunner of a secret. This a Danish word for what British blogger Anna Lea West called “cosiness of the soul.” In many languages, coziness refers exclusively to physical sensation, but for Scandinavians, hygge is more a state of mind, a full body-soul experience. And it’s starting to garner a lot of interest this side of “The Pond.”
Famous for their cheerful demeanors and successful parenting styles, the Danish also seem to have landed upon the cultural secret to braving dark Decembers with aplomb. So, what exactly is hygge? And how can we start experiencing it in our homes?
Cold Hands, Warm Heart
My family uses this phrase to describe a sense of inner warmth or well being that defies weather or circumstance. This is how I think of hygge. But hygge is also external. It’s all those small things we do to warm ourselves and our loved ones, body and soul. In our modern world, we tend to lose touch with the world of sensation. We try to wish away those things, like winter weather, that we deem unpleasant, but hygge encourages us to slow down and actually embrace our circumstances. Not to ignore them, but to find the joy within them.
Getting Back to Nature
Scandinavians are known for their love of natural materials–wood, stone, wool, cotton, silk–and for their love of nature itself. A woolen blanket, a real wood fire, a child’s play silk can help keep our home connected to the greater world while nature itself is sleeping. Think, too, about what the natural world is doing in wintertime. Animals are hibernating, trees are shedding leaves, the sun rises later and sets quite early. Consider ways you and your family can embrace these natural impulses for hibernation, simplicity, and sleep. Maybe it means turning off electronic devices earlier than usual, lowering the lights or using candles, lighting a fire, or portioning your day so that you can devote an extra hour to sleep.
And, don’t forget nature itself! Scandinavians love being outdoors in winter. “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing” is a common phrase. Woolen clothing, sturdy shoes and boots, mittens, scarves, hats, and quality coats will help to make cold a positive experience rather than an uncomfortable one. There is a whole winter wonderland waiting to be explored!
There are some legitimate health concerns in winter. Taking care to practice proper hygiene and nurture our bodies is extra important this time of year. My family has cut way back on sugar. We also take care that we’re getting the right nutrients with vitamins, probiotics, and especially good ol’ Vitamin D.
I’ve also found that it’s important for me to get outside and break a sweat at least 2-3 times a week. Some people do fine at a gym, but it’s simply not my cup of tea. I go jogging along a nature trail in our neighborhood several mornings a week before my husband leaves for work. It’s not always easy to get my butt out the door when the sky is dark and it’s barely above freezing, but it’s absolutely worth it in the end. You might prefer a brisk walk with friends in the afternoon, a snowy park day, or a weekend hike. Whatever works, do it!
One of the things I miss most in the wintertime is open windows. I love the fresh smell of a spring breeze, the scent of the lilacs and cherry trees that bloom all over our neighborhood. Fortunately, winter has it’s own wonderful smells–wood smoke, simmering stew, and freshly baked bread. On days when I don’t have time to light a fire, cook a stew, or bake, there are essential oils to brighten and enliven my home. I use bergamot in my homemade cleaners, lavender in my laundry, and this fabulous oil from Aveda in my hair. Our sense of smell is so powerful and tends to be so under-appreciated in our culture. Think of your favorite scents, the ones that evoke a sense of peace and deep happiness for you, and see if you can find a way to incorporate a few into your home this winter.
Food, Glorious Food!
It’s not secret that I love to cook. And bake. And eat! Good food is perhaps the most universal symbol of nourishment–and this is the word we want to consider. Nourishment is different than “yummy.” There are plenty of foods my tongue craves that my tummy will scold me for later. I don’t see anything particularly soul-warming about indigestion, do you?
In the winter, it can be tempting to eat heavy, highly-sugared foods. The fruits and veggies of summer are hard to come by, and they’re usually the nutrient-depleted hothouse versions, anyway. Get to know what’s abundant in your area this time of year. Mushrooms, leeks, squash, lettuces, spinach, apples, pears, and citrus are having their heydey in the months when the other, flashier fruits and veggies are incognito. Nose around the produce section at your favorite grocery, and I guarantee you can find something fresh, tasty, and satisfying to take home.
Home-baked bread, warming soups and stews, and roasted vegetables can fill our bellies on a cold night, but they also speak to our souls. The time and care it takes to prepare them may seem inconvenient, but put another way, it is calming, restorative, and never more necessary than in the dark, slow days of winter.
And don’t forget the drinks! Warming drinks are absolute soul food in wintertime. Who doesn’t love a steaming mug of coffee or a calming cup of afternoon tea? Hot cocoa, spiced cider, or a hot toddy before bed can expand the repertoire and enliven your taste buds on a dreary day.
Winter can be isolating, especially in cold climates. Be sure to really connect on a daily basis with other human beings, particularly those you live with. Build a puzzle or play a board game with your family. Share a cup of tea with your neighbor or a friend. Host a family for dinner and roast marshmallows in the fireplace for dessert. Be creative, be generous, and reach out heart-to-heart.
Get a Rhythm
It can be difficult to carve out time for board games and cozy afternoons when we’re busy with work, school, and other outings and errands. I’ve found in my own life that being protective of our home time goes a long way toward filling up our spirits and keeping us connected to each other. Saying “no” a little more often than comes natural to me really goes a long way in becoming a “yes” to other, better options.
But being at home so much with four young children, especially when it’s cold and wet, can feel claustrophobic or chaotic when we don’t have a rhythm to our days. Every home has a rhythm, whether we realize it or not. I’ve found that the more purposeful I am about crafting the flow of our days, the more contented and harmonious we are as a family–and the more productive we are, even while feeling calmer.
To sound totally hippy-dippy, I’d encourage you to try to think of your day the way you think of breathing. Some activities are in-breaths, others are out-breaths. Our rhythms have the best flow when we can alternate these types of activities, the way we alternating inhaling and exhaling. For example, I wake up before my children so I can have an in-breath–coffee, journalling, and quiet time with the Lord. After that, breakfast prep becomes an out-breath, and then another in-breath as we all sit down to share a meal. Think about how your want your day to feel, then consider what it requires. Wherever possible, try to mentally tag the necessary events as “in-breath” or “out-breath,” and see if you can fit them together with alternating activities.
My family loves making things. Whether it’s wood-working, knitting, watercolors, or holiday crafts, we all love to create. Personally, however, I’ve always found these sorts of activities intimidating. My family of origin was not much of a DIY household. Fortunately, my husband’s was, and he’s taught me many things–from how to paint a room to how to purl stitch. (He lived with his grandma, what can I say?) But I can say with confidence that the more I’ve expanded my skills, the more I’ve come to fall in love with making. We can’t learn it all overnight, but we can each take one step to learning some new skill or art. Trust me, it’s good for the soul.
Blankets + Books
I saved this one for (almost) last, because it’s probably my favorite. Curling up on the couch with a lap full of children and a lovely chapter book is one of my favorite activities year round, but there’s something extra special about it in the winter. In the afternoons, we drag out the blankets, pile them high and dive into imaginary worlds that warm us up from the ears in and the imagination out. I love catching up on reading in the winter. In the evenings side by side with my husband, it’s the perfect at-home date.
When I was little, I loved watching the movie Bambi. My favorite character was Thumper, and my favorite scene was the one where his mother admonishes him for saying something unpleasant. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” Thumper recites dutifully. It’s a simple lesson, but a good one–and one the Scandinavians have cultivated in their culture. Rather than complain about what winter isn’t, they cherish what only winter has to offer. It’s easy to get our thoughts in a rut about winter. Maybe it’s time to pull ourselves out and dig a new groove.