The hygge conspiracy | Charlotte Higgins

This year’s most overhyped trend is a wholesome Danish concept of cosiness, used to sell everything from fluffy socks to vegan shepherd’s pie. But the version we’re buying is a British invention – and the real thing is less cuddly than it seems

Inescapably and suddenly, Britain has been invaded by hygge. The Danish word, previously unknown to all but the most hardcore Scandophiles, is now the subject of an avalanche of books, hundreds of Identikit newspaper features, and endless department-store winter displays. Every story on the subject explains that the word defies literal translation, before offering “cosiness” as a workable approximation – it’s not exactly that, but rather, a feeling of calm togetherness and the enjoyment of simple pleasures, perhaps illuminated by the gentle flicker of candlelight.

Not the least of the paradoxes of this craze, which you might also call a wildly overhyped trend, is that simply pronouncing it is almost impossible for British tongues. The first mention of hygge in any text – where it sits so invitingly on the page, with its row of curvaceous descenders – usually comes with a phonetic guide. This is in order to prevent readers from committing the faux-pas of uttering “higgy” or “huggy” – or, worse, “hig”. “Hue-gah”, “hoo-gah”, “heurgh” and “hhyooguh” are among the approximations offered in the (at least) nine books on hygge published this autumn. (The Sun, helpfully, suggests it should rhyme with “cougar”.)

The titles of these books, carefully calibrated for search-engine optimisation, are: Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness; The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well; Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures, Living the Danish Way; The Cozy Life: Rediscover the Joy of Simple Things Through the Danish Concept of Hygge; Hygge: The Complete Guide to Embracing the Danish Concept of Cosy and Simple Living; The Art of Hygge: How to Bring Danish Cosiness Into Your Life; How to Hygge: the Secrets of Nordic Living; The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Well; Keep Calm and Hygge: A Guide to the Danish Art of Simple and Cosy Living.

“It is the most striking publishing trend I can remember, in terms of the sheer number of titles published at the same time,” Caroline Sanderson, who writes about non-fiction for the Bookseller magazine, told me. And so, inevitably, there is also a 10th book – a parody. Its publication was announced only 29 days after the first of the straight books came out. Say Ja to Hygge: How to Find Your Special Cosy Place suggests that the crucial word be pronounced “huhhpg-ghuhrr”. This is not the only occasion when the parody is hard to distinguish from the volumes it is apparently spoofing.

Just as “chic” is the thing that everyone knows about the French, the word hygge must now be affixed, almost by law, to any media story about Denmark or, indeed, anything remotely Scandinavian, whether the subject is clothes, furniture, cookery, travel, or working hours. The headlines are mostly absurd. Get Hygge With It! Hungry For Hygge! Ten Reasons to Hygge … It Will Make You Happier, Fitter and Slimmer! Give Your Home a Hygge! There is even a New Statesman article titled The Hygge of Oasis: Why I Find This Band Strangely Comforting.

According to this now vast popular literature, the creation of an atmosphere of hygge is aided by gløgg (mulled wine), meatballs and cardamom buns. Certain activities and entertainments, often involving candles, woollens, or nature, are also said to promote feelings of hygge. One of the less sophisticated books suggests projects for making “winter bunting” and a “mug cosy”, the latter to be fashioned from buttons, sequins and an old sock. Its advice to take up the hyggelig activity of cycling is accompanied by a motivational quote from that byword of existential contentment, Sylvia Plath.

I have seen hygge used to sell cashmere cardigans, wine, wallpaper, vegan shepherd’s pie, sewing patterns, a skincare range, teeny-tiny festive harnesses for dachshunds, yoga retreats and a holiday in a “shepherd’s hut” in Kent. The Royal and Derngate Theatre in Northampton has even opened a Bar Hygge – craft beer and open sandwiches a speciality. “It’s hard to pinpoint a definition for the Danish word ‘hygge’,” proclaims the website. “It sits somewhere between warmth and comfort, cosiness and friendship, making the most of every moment, away from worries. We wanted to borrow some of that and bring it to Northampton.”

Hygge has been listed as a “word of the year” by both the Collins and Oxford dictionaries – alongside Brexit and Trumpism – in the lexicographers’ annual public-relations exercise. Tremblings of a hygge backlash, seen in skits such as a Daily Mash piece titled Hygge Is Byllshytte, serve only to emphasise its ubiquity. The Eurosceptic Daily Telegraph ran an article suggesting that readers adopt a “bracingly British” version of the trend – brygge.

One morning in October, I walked around John Lewis’s London flagship store with Philippa Prinsloo, its head of design: we ran our hands over fake-fur throws and hot-water bottles, felt the nub of Scottish woollen blankets, admired hyggelig tableware that favoured sharing and simplicity. The theme of the homeware displays was, she said, “winter warmth. Making sure things are ready to cosy down.” An early adopter, the store first promoted hygge as a theme last autumn (“we should have done it again this year,” said Prinsloo). Will hygge last, I asked her? Will it be more than a flash in the plan? “Oh yes, definitely. People really want it and need it at the moment.”

Hygge is catnip to social media: on Instagram there are almost 1.5m #hygge posts of falling leaves, bowls of pumpkin soup and babies adorably wrapped in blankets. On Pinterest, there has been a year-on-year rise of 285% in hygge-themed pinning. Interest is especially strong in Britain, according to a spokeswoman for the site, where “it skyrocketed in September this year”.

The author of one of the books on hygge, Meik Wiking, called it “the second Viking invasion”. But that’s not quite right: hygge has been deliberately imported – and reinvented – by eager Britons. The concept may be indelibly Danish, but the hype has been made in London. And amid the clamour and frenzy of late 2016, this sudden taste for closing the door to the world, for retreating back to the hearth, is selling like hotcakes.

* * *

Hygge has not arrived in our midst by accident. Its sudden presence in Britain is a matter of deliberate inducement and persuasion. In its most visible manifestation – the onslaught of books on the subject – it is a trend that has been carefully concocted in the laboratory of London publishing houses, and then disseminated through the ready collaboration of an enthusiastic neophile press.

It is book editors – largely young, female and bright – who created the formula of hygge for a mass British audience. The starting point for these young lifestyle alchemists was an article that appeared on the BBC website in the first autumnal days of October 2015. Its writer, Justin Parkinson, had been casting around for “news features and zeitgeisty articles” from the open-plan expanses of New Broadcasting House, London, four glassy floors above its newsroom. He’d read about hygge in Helen Russell’s popular memoir The Year of Living Danishly, and he’d heard the word on a TV cookery programme. “I wondered whether I could work it up into a feature,” he told me recently, so he Googled “hygge UK”.

“I thought some people might think it was a slightly poncey, head-scratching idea,” he said. In fact, his article, published on 2 October 2015, received over a million hits, and was outread that day by only five stories – two pieces on a school shooting in Oregon, and articles on Syria, terrorism and cancer. It was a small island of cheer on a grim news day. The article was immediately followed up by others in the Express, the Independent on Sunday and the Telegraph, the beginning of an extraordinary spike in hygge coverage: in 2015, the word appeared in 40 pieces in national newspapers. This year, that figure has shot up to more than 200, a bump of 400% – and that’s not counting the huge proliferation of articles in blogs and lifestyle magazines.

One person who saw the BBC article was a publisher named Anna Valentine. She was starting a new imprint, Trapeze, at the publishing conglomerate Hachette, whose UK headquarters occupy an angular modern building on the north bank of the Thames. The BBC article “ticked so many boxes on so many levels,” she said. Denmark, with its crime drama, its New Nordic cuisine, its classic design, its consistent spot at the top of national happiness league tables, was “hot”, for a start. Then there was the notion – intriguingly, in a time of Brexit – that “we are looking to other cultures for guidance on how to live our lives. If you look at the biggest-selling lifestyle books, it’s things like Marie Kondo’s The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, which is inspired by Japan. Then there was Norwegian Wood” – last year’s non-fiction surprise hit, a Scandinavian ode to the charms of wood-chopping.

Valentine’s aim was paradoxical: to publish books that would be bought by people who “aren’t book-buyers”. Hygge seemed like a perfect distillation of popular lifestyle obsessions – beginning with mindfulness, “which has moved beyond being a publishing phenomenon and into being a way of life, and has fed into so many trends, like healthy-eating books and adult colouring books.” She added: “It seemed to tie into an interest in digital detox, too.” So many recent fashions, she said, had been about self-discipline and self-deprivation – tidying up, “clean” eating. Hygge “was an antidote to all that”.

I reflected on the publishing industry offering first one trend, and then its remedy, as if handing out a sequence of uppers and downers. The industry loves repetitions and hybridisations – crossing one already popular book with another, so as to cook up a new, or sort-of new, book, designed to replicate the success of previous formulas. (In this context of test-tube book-breeding it is perhaps inevitable that there is a hygge-themed colouring book on the market this autumn. Watch out, too, for books about lagom – a Swedish word meaning lack of excess – next autumn.)

Around London last winter, other editors were thinking similar thoughts. In the sleek art deco headquarters of Penguin Random House, Emily Robertson and Fiona Crosby were working, separately, on potential titles for their respective imprints, Penguin Life and Michael Joseph. Each had also spotted the BBC article, they told me, when we met in a room off one of the building’s echoing marble hallways. “I spend an embarrassing amount of my time flicking around the internet,” said Robertson, “looking at what people are reading and sharing on Twitter. Pinterest is big for this. It’s a case of looking at what people are talking about.”

Once the idea had been hatched, it was time to find writers – but this was not a straightforward exercise: the notion of hygge is so taken for granted in Danish language and culture that there was no readymade cohort of authors or experts to call on. The editors had to either track down a willing Dane, or identify someone with tangentially related knowledge. Valentine contacted an agent she knew, who suggested Charlotte Abrahams, a British writer on interiors and expert on Scandinavian design. Robertson approached political scientist Meik Wiking, who runs the Happiness Research Institute, a Copenhagen thinktank. Hygge wasn’t exactly the kind of thing the institute researched, but the commission was canny, since the association suggested to the reader that hygge might help provide a shortcut to Danish levels of wellbeing. (The Happiness Research Institute has since become a ubiquitous presence in newspaper reports on the subject, lending the imprimatur of social science to the hygge industry.) Crosby found Marie Tourell Søderberg, an actor in the Danish historical drama 1864, which had been shown on BBC4.

For each of these authors, the idea of writing about hygge was unexpected – Wiking told me his friends were amazed that anyone thought he could get a whole book out of the concept. Abrahams was actually hoping to write a book about running, but she set about putting together a proposal: she had heard of hygge, but not given it much thought. (When I visited her at home in the Cotswolds, later, she confessed that candles gave her migraines.)

It was only at the end of January, through a colleague in the Penguin rights department, that Crosby and Robertson realised they were both publishing books on the same thing. That’s despite the fact that they work in the same open-plan office and can see each other from their desks, if they stand and look over the piles of Zadie Smiths and Deborah Levys and Jamie Olivers. The discovery necessitated a meeting over bad coffee, but it was a friendly encounter, not “hygge at dawn”, said Crosby.

“It was actually quite reassuring,” Robertson told me – because it meant hygge was definitely “a thing”. (Abrahams interviewed Meik Wiking for her book while he was working on his, The Little Book of Hygge, though he didn’t let on.) The first volume to come out, in August, was Louisa Thomsen Brits’s The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Well, published by Ebury, which is also part of Penguin Random House.

So far Wiking’s book has been doing best – a brisk trade at 46,000 copies in the UK, according to Nielsen Book Research, and it is being published in 23 other countries. That means that the British, oddly, have become the agents of the dissemination of Danish hygge, as if the very idea had been invented in London – which, in a sense, it was.

Each book has its different flavour. Wiking takes a broadly sociological approach, laced with disquisitions on interior design and cooking. Søderberg’s is a notably pretty book, homey and intimate, scattered with reflections from ordinary Danes. Abrahams writes as a foreigner investigating hygge; she combines expertise on Danish design with a memoir-ish approach about the search for contentment in her own life.

But for all the earnest cultural analyses, linguistic glosses and quotations from Kierkegaard, it is the images, more or less common in style to each title, that one falls for: hands cupping warm mugs; bicycles leaning against walls; sheepskin rugs thrown over chairs; candles and bonfires; summer picnics; trays of fresh-baked buns. To look at them is to long for that life, that warmth, that peace, that stability – for that idealised, Instagrammable Denmark of the imagination.

A family relaxing together around a candlelit table epitomises hygge.
A family relaxing together around a candlelit table epitomises hygge. Photograph: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

* * *

When you arrive in Copenhagen, it quickly becomes clear that for Danes, hygge is so omnipresent as to be almost invisible. It is used in numerous common phrases – “Hyg dig!”, or “have hygge”, is a common way of saying goodbye, for example. It offers itself up elastically in noun, verb and adjectival forms, and is part of innumerable compounds: you can listen to hygge-music, have a hygge-Christmas, sit in hygge-corner with hygge-lighting perhaps enjoying hygge-chat. There is a verb, råhygge, which means, literally, to raw-hygge, that is, to enjoy strong, or authentic hygge; to hygge with someone might mean to have a certain kind of sex (and not the abandoned, up-against-the-fridge kind). As we walked down a street together in central Copenhagen, Mette Davidsen-Nielsen, chief executive of the newspaper Information, answered her phone to her daughter. When she finished the brief call she told me that she’d used used the adjectival form of hygge three times – “I kept telling her it would be hyggelig to see her.”

Hygge’s sudden popularity abroad seemed both pleasing and bemusing to most of the Danes I spoke to, as if there were a sudden craze in Germany for books extolling the spiritual virtues of British-style apologising, complete with an encyclopaedic range of helpful accessories available for purchase. For others, its escape from national boundaries seemed a potential subject of study. “We should have an academic conference on the international fame of hygge,” said Carsten Levisen, an associate professor of linguistics at Denmark’s Roskilde University. He believes he is the first person to have written an entire academic book chapter on the word from a linguistic perspective. “I surprised myself by being able to do it,” he said.

For all its ubiquity, hygge is also recognised as a self-evidently positive and particularly Danish value. Though the word itself is actually imported from Norwegian, its emergence as an element of national culture is sometimes traced back to Denmark’s loss of territory in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was forced to abandon tracts of what are now Norway, Sweden and Germany. It is stitched deeper into its language than equivalents in neighbouring countries (such as the German Gemütlichkeit, and the Swedish mys) and is firmly entangled with the way that Danish society organises and projects itself.

You could almost see hygge as the private, intimate analogue of the public, civic Danish welfare state. Both hygge and the welfare state rely on a state of trust, a feeling of smallness (small nation, small circles of friends), and an assumption of equality. Each feeds on the other: the welfare state offers the conditions for hygge to prosper, for it ensures a 37-hour working week and the time to devote to hyggelig activities; and on the other hand hygge’s disdain of hierarchy and conspicuous consumption imparts values important to sustaining a society in which stark differences in financial means are banished. “In Denmark our basic needs are covered,” Marie Tourell Søderberg told me when she hosted breakfast for me at her apartment – candle flickering, bread straight from the oven. “We don’t need to fight for our survival – and so we have time to do things that we find meaningful.”

Everyone has their own, highly personal image of the most hyggelig hygge. One brisk October evening, I met up with a contributor to Søderberg’s book called Mikkel Vinther, who is a teacher of social media at a school that offers continuing education to adults. He took me to a Copenhagen community centre. It was hosting a cheap communal supper to be followed by a game of bingo (organised fun is a noticeable feature of Danish social life). There were 200 people there; everyone seemed young, middle-class and attractive. Our neighbours at the big communal table leaned over curiously. “Excuse me, are you doing an interview?” asked one of them. He was called Simon Falk Christensen, and worked as a project manager for Danish State Railways. Intrigued, he offered his own definition. “For me it’s a lot about family. Being together. Candles. It’s never about being posh, about cakes from the ‘right’ place. It’s cake you baked yourself. It’s a feeling. It’s something that has meaning in itself, it’s not a means to becoming a better person, like doing exercise. I associate it with being a child, the smell of my mother cooking onions in the next room. The smell of the Christmas tree.”

Over lunch the following day, Davidsen-Nielsen and her colleague, media commentator Lasse Jensen, debated the meaning of hygge. “Intellectualism is not hygge,” said Davidsen-Nielsen. “Severe debates on philosophy and ideas – that’s not very hyggelig. Alcohol, sugar and fat are the three key ingredients of hygge.” He added: “It used to be beer and aquavit, now it’s wine.” She said, “There’s something about socks and hygge.” He added, “Handknitted socks.”

While hygge had many variations, depending on whom you asked, it was always anti-modern, and always tinged with nostalgia. Your mobile phone is not hygge. In its native form, hygge is regarded as essentially uncommercial, and by definition modest; yet at the same time it is helped along by certain consumer props – especially candles or gently glowing lamps.

Davidsen-Nielsen told me that walking down the street in the dark, she could look into her neighbours’ windows and spot who was Danish and who was foreign, just by their lighting – as if hygge was not merely the essence of Danishness, but also a kind of cultural border that outsiders could not quite cross. Søderberg, too, told me a story about Syrian refugee friends of hers, who had searched all over Copenhagen for fluorescent tubes to light their apartment – the tale was told fondly, but their choice of domestic lighting was a marker of their otherness – no Dane would make a choice so lacking in hygge. (I had never encountered a cosy bicycle shop before I visited Copenhagen – but their windows were draped with chic, low-wattage bulbs agleam in the dusk. Davidsen-Nielsen gave me an artificial candle, which is the coming thing in Denmark, as everyone is starting to get worried about how unhealthy it is to breathe candle fumes. It flickers convincingly; it is made in China.)

To Danes, nothing could be less political than hygge – since talking about controversial subjects is by definition not hygge – and yet it is clear that the concept lends itself to political use. Davidsen-Nielsen and Jensen told me that the prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, was hyggelig – the kind of guy you could imagine having a beer with. “He’s folksy and informal. He’s one of the guys. And he gets away with murder – almost,” said Davidsen-Nielsen. “Hygge is a useful strategy for disguising power. Politically, you can cloak quite aggressive or radical acts with an impression of hygge. Hygge says, let’s forget about everything. Let’s block out the world and have some candy.”

* * *

Almost nothing written about hygge in Britain suggests that it has a troubling side. Wiking’s book does mention that hygge may sometimes feel excluding to outsiders. “It would be considered less hyggelig if there were too many new people at an event.” Foreigners, he told me, find it hard to penetrate tight-knit Danish social circles: hygge can only really exist within groups who know each other already. But he stops well short of the kind of critique that, for instance, Dorthe Nors brought to bear when we spoke. “Somewhere along the way, hygge became a form of social control,” said the Danish author, whose novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal will be published in Britain in February. “It’s a little like ‘feel-good’ in America – the cult of the ‘feel-good’ book or the ‘feel-good’ movie. It’s a cocoon.”

Last year Nors published a chilling short story, inspired by an article she had read about a Danish man who had murdered his wife. He was quoted as saying, Nors told me, that he committed this act shortly after the couple had got hyggelig together on the sofa. In the story’s introduction, she writes, “Hygge is … used as a way to suppress feelings in a family or relationship. Every time someone wants to address some kind of unpleasant emotion, this person is in danger of spoiling the hygge and will be told: ‘Now, let’s just hygge – which basically just means: Let’s just stay on the surface and behave hyggelig … It’s a beautiful thing, the Danish hygge. And it’s also a little bit dangerous.” Nors happily admitted to a little inconsistency, for she loves to partake in a bit of hygge (she has candlesticks in her office, for example). But, she said, “You should see us at Christmas. It scares the freak out of me. You’re not allowed to be unhappy.”

The suppression of difference inherent in hygge, Nors said, was not confined to family life. She related the word to Denmark’s historically largely agrarian economy and rural society. “It’s a very small nation – and we all used to be farming, although that’s changing fast. In this kind of society, conformity is really important. Hygge provides a way of establishing consensus.” Those who rock the boat, who think differently, who speak out – “they are spoiling the hygge”, she said.

Aside from hygge, there is one other peculiarly Danish notion that visitors tend to encounter. This is the so-called Jante law – a set of attitudes said to govern Danish social life, described in Aksel Sandemose’s satirical 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. The first rule of the law, which takes its name from the fictional town of Jante, is “You’re not to think that you are anything special,” and the others are more or less variations on that theme: essentially, don’t get too big for your breeches. Don’t stand out. Don’t be different. Sandemose’s novel caused controversy for its unblinking vision of rural small-mindedness, but Danes recognise the law of Jante as containing a certain truth: that conformity, and an almost aggressive modesty, are central to Danish culture.

The founder of the far-right Danish People’s Party, Pia  Kjærsgaard.
The founder of the far-right Danish People’s Party, Pia Kjærsgaard. Photograph: Keld Navntoft/EPA

These qualities may promote unity and solidarity of a sort useful in maintaining an egalitarian society, but it’s not hard to see the drawbacks of cultural norms that suppress individuality or dissent. In the chapter on hygge in Levisen’s book Cultural Semantics and Social Cognition: A Case Study on the Danish Universe of Meaning, he recounts a story about Sepp Piontek, the German football manager who took the Danish national team to their first World Cup in 1986 – and quickly discovered that hygge was an obstacle to the team’s success. “In order to achieve any results in Denmark, the national team had to go through a minor cultural revolution,” Piontek wrote in his memoir. “The general attitude was that it should be fun and hyggelig to be a part of the national team.”

A common critique of hygge, according to Mikkel Vinther, is that it “makes the democratic process weak because to discuss difficult things is not hyggelig”. Vinther, himself, is more positive: it has the potential, he argues, to provide a powerful, non-confrontational way for people to come together. But first it needs to be reinvented: he wants to develop what he calls hygge 2.0. The culture minister, Bertel Haarder is in the process of establishing a “cultural canon” for Denmark, inviting Danes to submit ideas about what they find most valuable in their national life. But Haarder himself has sounded a note of caution about placing hygge in such a list – it should be done “only if it is something that includes rather than, as is often the case, excludes. On second thoughts, I don’t want to take hygge with us into the future”, he said in an interview earlier this year.

Hygge is, itself, “the place where politics are set aside”, Levisen told me. But it is precisely this sense that it is beyond politics – as well as its ubiquitous, irreducible Danishness (and thus not-foreignness) – that allows it to be mobilised by politicians, particularly those of the xenophobic far right, who have become a rising force in Danish politics over the past decade. (For those who idealise Danish society, it came as an unpleasant shock when it was reported earlier this year that parliament had approved a plan to strip refugees of their valuables, including jewellery and watches, with an apparent unconcern for any troubling historical resonances.)

A case in point is Pia Kjærsgaard, the founder of the anti-immigration, anti-Brussels Danish People’s Party, which is currently the second-largest party in parliament. Kjærsgaard has subtly projected herself as the protector of Danish hygge against the unknown forces of the globalised world. According to Nors: “Hygge is part of the whole set-up of the radical right wing in Denmark. Their commercials will have all the emblematic hygge symbols.”

Kjærsgaard, who is now the speaker in Denmark’s parliament, gave an interview last year in which she described, in detail, the importance of making her office hyggelig – with family photos, lamps, porcelain and knick-knacks. “I cannot thrive and work in offices that aren’t hyggelig,” she said.

Creating a hyggelig work environment is completely ordinary in Denmark – when I visited the ambassador to Britain, Claus Grube, he lit candles, switched off overhead lighting and put a cushion behind my back. But Kjærsgaard and her allies use hygge with particular, and deliberate, force, according to Nors, “promoting a popular image in which being Danish is about sitting round a table and eating cake – or pork. And, they imply, everyone outside that is not Danish – and it taps into a fear that globalisation and refugees will destroy everything.” The Danish People’s Party’s perspective is that Denmark is an almost perfect country, with its long history, its generous welfare state, and its cultural distinctiveness. But anything that threatens that safe community, including alien values and ideologies, cannot be tolerated.

The lightly encoded thought process, then, is that if hygge is uniquely Danish, and hygge can only be enjoyed by insiders, then migrants and outsiders will destroy the nation’s hyggelig atmosphere, and therefore effectively destroy Denmark. Lotte Folke Kaarsholm, an editor on the newspaper Information, said, “Of course hygge excludes. The whole problem with Scandinavia is that these countries can only really work if you shut the borders. You have all these ideals of kindness on the inside, but for our solidarity to function, you need pretty tall walls.”

Handknitted socks are quintessentially hygge.
Handknitted socks are quintessentially hygge. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

* * *

The year in which hygge has exploded as a British lifestyle trend has been extraordinarily turbulent. If 23 June was like an earthquake, 8 November was its answering tsunami – a phenomenon yet more tremendous than the original shock. For all those who mourned and worried about the victories of Brexit and Trump, there were others who rejoiced. These disturbances revealed societies, on both sides of the Atlantic, that are utterly divided. Young vs old, educated vs uneducated, rural vs urban, women vs men, black vs white – society’s cracks became gaping and obvious. If years can have moods, 2016 was savage in its anger and abject in its fear.

In fact, the mood of 2016 could even be described as uhygge. The word does not, precisely, mean uncosy – it does not summon up sharp-angled open-plan offices with severe furniture. It means frightening; it means sinister. If hygge is sitting round the campfire, all differences forgotten, warmed by the dancing flames, uhygge is the darkness beyond that enchanted circle. Uhygge, in fact, threatens to engulf the warmth, the solidarity, the kindness. In the unfathomable bleakness of uhygge exist those terrible things from the outside that could destroy you. On some atavistic, deep-buried level, migrants, refugees, and those with starkly different values, bring with them the fearful perfume of uhygge.

In the tension between hygge and uhygge, the warmth of the hearth and the family, and the terror of the lonely world outside, are linguistically bound together. You can see this reflected in Danish culture – most obviously, for those of us in Britain, through its crime drama. Dorthe Nors joked to me that she thought Nordic noir was a kind of pressure release from all the hygge – “all the dark stuff has to come out somewhere, right?” Watching such programmes is a way of keeping uhygge things at bay, safely confined in a corner of the room, on a screen. The hero of the TV series The Killing, police officer Sarah Lund, operates in a Denmark that is dank and grey, cold and unforgiving – the chill grey weather and long winters from which hygge is particularly adept at affording protection. She herself is far from the campfire. She is alone. She is terrible at intimate relationships; she backs out of rooms where hyggelig family activities are taking place.

The series, with its darkness and violence, exemplifies uhygge – and yet the viewer will, most likely, experience it from the safety and warmth of the family home, bottle of wine open, heating turned up. A detective story is a way of dealing with the dark: it is about gathering and containing death and horror within a safe and predictable narrative structure. Hygge does the same work through different means: it draws us in towards warmth and togetherness and forgetting. But it also somehow depends on the existence of the dark, too. In Wiking’s book there’s a remark to the effect that an especially hyggelig situation he remembered (the scent of a stew simmering on the stove, an open fire, a group of friends) could have become more hyggelig with the addition of just one thing: a raging storm outside.

Hygge is, then, a retreat, an escape, a turning-inwards. If its emergence as an element of national culture is often traced back to Denmark’s loss of territory – an embrace of the intimate smallness of newly sharp national borders – perhaps its distinctly British avatar disguises a similar national turning-inward, a pulling-up of the drawbridge against the terror of the world.

The editors who coaxed the British hygge trend into existence were not weirdly accurate weather forecasters, predicting the full bleakness of the conditions to come when they commissioned their books back in February. But they had put their fingers in the wind and, consciously or otherwise, found in hygge much that chimed with the times.

If this is the year in which globalisation has been found wanting by millions, hygge appeals to an earlier age, an imagined past, where one could take back control or make a country great again. The consumerist trappings of hygge, the books and throws and cushions and candles and holidays and recipes, are not just sold as products with a particular and practical use, but rather as magical objects that might summon up feelings and emotions: of safety and solace, of comfort and calm, of a being-in-a-time-before. Hygge appeals to both sides of our great political divides: on the one hand it nostalgically hints at a better past (of community, of family, of simple pleasures) and on the other it offers a refuge from the great, unleashed tempests of the times.

Carsten Levisen asked me if I thought the appetite for hygge in Britain was partly about a fantasy of what Britain might have become, if it had had the chance: Denmark as a kind of alternative, but squandered, possible future. Perhaps, but if he is right, it would be a wonderful contradiction. When Britons are asked whether they want a stronger welfare state and more equality – the basics of a more hyggelig life – they tend to vote “no” pretty hard. Britain is hungry for the accoutrements of hygge, but not the costs – such as high taxation – that come with it.

If, for Danes themselves, hygge has an element of fantasy – through the way it draws back from difficulties, difference and debate – then the British import is a fantasy of a fantasy. Hygge may be quintessentially Danish, but there is something utterly British about the nostalgic longing for the simple accoutrements of an earlier time – especially if it can be bought. At the same time, it is hard to deny that just at the moment, the most natural thing in the world is to want to huddle round the fire and wish the outside away. Settle in: it’s going to be a long winter.

• Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.


Charlotte Higgins

The GuardianTramp

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