Celebrating Christmas is an evolving practice. Artificial trees now outnumber real ones, 4 to 1. Paper cards are fast losing market share to electronic greetings. And to be jolly is now passé. 'Tis the season to be hygge! Not just for us shirttail Danes, whose forbearers followed Brigham Young's wagon tracks to the Salt Lake Valley in the 19th century, but for the trendy from New York's Greenwich Village to the Mission District in San Francisco. If you doubt hygge's popularity, click through Amazon's listings of how-to-be-hygge books.
According to Danish anthropologist Jeppe Trolle, hygge (pronounced HUE-guh) is a cultural concept derived from "home, togetherness, the enjoyment of leisure, food and drinks." Feng shui can place your sofa perfectly in your living room, Zen might focus your helter-skelter mind, but hygge is about being content and cozy. Why so popular just now? Perhaps because Denmark tops the happiest-country list, year after year, while the U.S. comes in at number 13 or 14. If the embrace of hygge will bring Americans relief in these unhappy times, what's to lose?
Contentment might be more elusive than happiness, and coziness might have subjective components like Dr. Denton footed pajamas or mulled wine. But in the dark days of winter, candles are definitely hygge, as are mugs of hot chocolate and plates of cardamom cookies. Golden Retrievers are hygge especially when dozing at the feet of men in corduroys and cardigans. Ugg slippers are hygge, but phones and ear buds are not. Face-to-face conversation is hygge's mainspring, as long as politics and religion are excluded. They are sand in hygge gears.
"To be cozy" is one English translation of hygge; "to be nostalgic" is another. I think the difference is one of intention. You can create coziness, but nostalgia comes unbidden like ghosts in Ebenezer Scrooge's bedroom. The two intertwine at Christmas unlike at other times of the year. On any Saturday night, you can cozy up on the sofa. A plush blanket, a bowl of popcorn and Casablanca on Netflix puts you at a 3 on the hygge scale, maybe a 4. Christmas, on the other hand, is an easy 10. That's because the sounds, tastes and smells of Yuletide combine to fuel the nostalgia impulse.
Novelist Marcel Proust wrote about the involuntary memories triggered by the smell of a cookie dipped in tea. These "Proustian memories" are familiar to all of us. Who does not have a song that transports them to a distant time, place and emotional state? When I hear Bing Crosby crooning, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas," I am 10 years old, begging for a dollop of dough as my mother bakes cookies in a kitchen hot enough to fog the windows.
I enjoy nostalgic moments like that. In fact, any conversation that begins with "remember when" draws me in. If nostalgia had a frequent flyer program, I would have platinum status. My Danish lineage might account for that. Others take an opposing view, dismissing nostalgia as an unprofitable way to invest your time. I am more in tune with essayist Roger Rosenblatt's fanciful theory that "it is impossible to live in any tense but the past. The present moves too fast; the future is the future." The older you are, the more you appreciate his insight. Scrooge illustrates the connection between past and future. The old skinflint takes no interest in the future until he has redeemed the past.
As Scrooge discovers—and research now confirms—nostalgia has salutary effects just as dark chocolate does. "Nostalgia confers psychological benefits," asserts the University of Southampton's Nostalgia website. Among them is "a stronger sense of belongingness, affiliation or sociality." If you chart nostalgic moments over the course of a lifetime, you get a U-shaped graph almost identical to that of happiness. Both show 20-year-olds and 70-year-olds are equally happy and often nostalgic. The mid-to-late 40s are the doldrum years.
I don't think of my 40s as the nadir of my life, but the decade does not provide many Proustian memories of Christmas. George Winston's CD December is about the only one that comes to mind. However, there was a bad scene with a Christmas tree on a fateful Saturday night.
It was to be a hygge evening in my sweet wife's mind: cookies baking, hot chocolate steaming, Christmas carols playing—mom, dad and the kids in L.L. Bean sweaters happily hanging ornaments on a perfect Scots Pine. In my mind, dad would be cadging cookie dough, sipping Drambuie, listening to the Grateful Dead and prepping the tree for the kids to decorate. My years of experience with Christmas trees caused me to shrink from the job. The trunk had to be fitted to a wobbly metal stand; a branch or two had to be reconfigured for symmetry's sake; cardboard shims had to be placed just-so to make the tree plumb—then the tangle of lights.
On that night of contending expectations, the stand was balky. The tree listed no matter what. (Frustration) I shimmed with paperback books. (Tension mounting) The grafted branches drooped and had to be wired in place. (Swearing!) While dealing with the Gordian knot of lights, bulbs crushed underfoot caused entire strings to go dark. (Loud swearing!) Finally, as the kids placed the ornaments, the tree toppled over like a torpedoed ship. (Wife flees!)
If there is a lesson here, it is that the pursuit of hygge can have unforeseen developments, some of which are best archived beyond nostalgia's reach. "Live in the past," Rosenblatt asserted, "but don't remember too much."
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