Two Scandinavian words solidly reframe winter for me – Koselig and hygge. These words peaked my interest recently while reading the Forge article, “The Norwegian Philosophy of Thriving in Winter” by James Ware. The Norwegians call it “koselig” and in Denmark the neighboring term is “hygge.” Either way you name “it,” these words are the newest addition to my winter vocabulary. In hygee fashion, prepare a mug of your favorite beverage, slip on your fuzzy slippers, light a scented candle and nestle in a comfy space to read how to prepare for your winter ahead.
Koselig (pronounced “koohshlee”) is both a feeling and a mindset. Though not entirely translatable, it can be interpreted as “a shared, safe togetherness that comes from a feeling of warmth and safety.” Koselig has an English cousin you already know – the word, “cozy.” The koselig mindset focuses on connecting with others and spending time in nature (rather than dwelling on the cold darkness of winter). Creating physical spaces and experiences that draw people together is koeselig. A distant relative is forest bathing, or as the Japanese call it “shinrin-yoku,” that can help with stress, diabetes, blood pressure, anxiety, and more. Steeping in experiences that pull from nature and togetherness embody the Koselig feeling and flow into human relationships. Actions, particularly helping another person, can also be koselig.
Let’s create a koselig holiday scenario to get us in the mood. My Composition 101 teacher would call this paragraph flowery, but I prefer to think of it as “koeslig imagery.”
The term “hygge” (pronounced hue-guh) from Denmark focuses on the essence of one’s well being or contentment. It’s more about the feeling than the cause. Hygge can be translated as the “coziness of the soul.” Hygge embodies the small, everyday moments that make you feel warm and happy. For me it can be a smell, like cinnamon rolls coming out of the oven. Others find hygge in lighting a scented candle or slipping into a well-worn pair of jeans and a comfy sweatshirt. Hygge can also be defined by what it is lacking: the absence of the emotionally overwhelming or things that annoy you. That rules out quite a bit for me…. Maybe hygge is the not so secret ingredient of why Denmark routinely lands on or near the top of the World Happiness Report?
Hygee and koselig seem related, yet are quite distinct. While hygge is more of an isolationist experience, koselig seeks to connect others to the feeing of coziness and sharing happiness. Other differences are that koselig happens more in places like nature or creative spaces and in the absence of technology, whereas hygee is more of a personal experience that kindles the soul. Koselig both fuels the person and creates community spirit and good will while hygee is a bit more self-indulgent.
As another Chicago winter looms, compounded by and woven within a Pandemic year, what better time is there to create coziness in our soul? Having some Scandinavian ancestry (“Britta” is a Swedish name and so was my great grandmother Britta Mart), we Swedes are proud of our “hearty” nature. Growing up in Minnesota among many other Vikings fans, I took saunas, ice-skated outdoors, played endless hours in the snow and loved to sled and ski. Winter holds many of my favorite childhood memories and I continue to enjoy the beauty and calm that winter brings. Age is now incrementally claiming my abilities – downhill skis are replaced by snowshoes and ice skating is now enjoyed by watching others. I don’t mourn what is lost, but relish the koselig that can still be enjoyed. Yes, there are people who fear winter, snow and the cold and treat it as something to be avoided. On the contrary, winter is the season that both restores and completes me and now I better understand why.
Research on the subject gives a positive nod to the notion of koselig. Stanford psychologist, Kari Leibowitz refers to her studies of the winter mindset in the town of Tromso Norway as a Fulbright scholar in 2015. The Polar Night extends from 11/21 – 1/21 (aka no real sun) in a city 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. This setting would seem to be the logical epicenter of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), but instead Leibowitz’s research finds folks in Tromso think differently, seeing winter as “something to be enjoyed and not endured.” Winter, instead, is not a limiting time of the year, but one of mindfulness. Winter is a time to strengthen bonds and build intimacy among family, friends and seek light from within oneself. After all the isolation we’ve been through in 2020, we all should be beacons in 2021.
Norwegians don’t just survive their long winters they thrive in them. It’s energizing to view winter with a fresh perspective, one created by former generations of my ancestors through rituals and traditions that are still celebrated today. Perhaps this sheds even more light on celebrations like (St.) Lucia Day, held on December 13. If you aren’t familiar, Lucia is an ancient mythical figure with an enduring role as a bearer of light in the dark Swedish winters. Alongside Midsummer, the Lucia celebrations represent one of the foremost cultural traditions in Sweden, with their reference to life in the peasant communities of old: darkness and light, cold and warmth. Swedish tradition celebrates through song and a crown of candles (lights) worn by a young girl as community sings in koselig, cutting the darkness with light:
The night treads heavily
around yards and dwellings
In places unreached by sun,
the shadows brood
Into our dark house she comes,
bearing lighted candles,
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.
As the sun sets earlier and the days grow shorter, light and love are needed to thrive this winter. May you adjust your mindset to find your hygge and create more koeslig to sustain you and yours in the days of long shadows ahead.