The 12 Days of Hygge: Christmas Edition
This is my very first multi-part blog post ever! I’m hoping it turns out to be as wonderful and grand in reality as it is in my head. As I’ve mentioned, to anyone that will listen, I am completely obsessed with Scandinavia and hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah”). In its most basic form, this means creating a feeling of coziness and security in your surroundings as well as your life. (You can read how my fascination with Nordic culture all began here.)
During the past year I’ve read numerous books, blog posts and magazine articles on the subject. I am by no means pretending to be an authority on it, but for the sake of saving you time and researching everything yourself, I’m really excited to break it down for you. Stick with me and I’ll show you how to transform your home into a cozy, welcoming space for your family and close friends... free from the usual hustle and bustle this time of year; simply, inexpensively and before the holidays!
DAY 1: LIGHTING
It seems good lighting is a non-negotiable staple in every Danish household. To create the right environment, one that is cozy and inviting, eliminate overhead lighting where you can. Opt for the softer lights of a side table lamp, sconces or even candles. The lower the wattage the more hygge it is. Creating small nooks of light around your home is the goal for the holiday. It invites people to sit down and snuggle in comfortably. Even the twinkling dim of Christmas tree lights are preferred over the harshness of ceiling bulbs. Dimmer switches are also a bonus.
If you have small children or pets around your home, like we do, all those candles may not be realistic. I suggest purchasing the remote-operated battery-powered pillar candles. What an invention these are! Even as recently as this year I have begun to notice battery powered tapered candles too. No more fear of setting the table runner on fire at Christmas dinner because my five-year-old jumped up excitedly! However, if you are able to light a few candles around your home, opt for the additional benefit of scented ones. I love those that smell like the holidays: evergreen trees, orange peel, clove and cranberry.
Plus, let’s be honest, when the lighting is softer the food looks tastier, the room looks cleaner and everyone looks more attractive! Come to think of it... no wonder the Danes are happier. They just might be onto something!
Even Santa looks younger by candlelight!
DAY 2: COZY UP WITH TEXTURE
It should come as no surprise that one of the best ways to create a hyggeligt (or hygge-like) atmosphere in your home is by stocking up on all things warm and snuggly: blankets, pillows, sweaters, slippers, socks, etc. Having a bunch of these textile comforts around is like posting a sign saying “come on in, make yourself comfortable & stay awhile”.
Think about those moments where you are most comfortable in your own home. It’s probably when you are making a cocoon for yourself: under a fluffy duvet in your bed, on the couch in front of the fire after being outside in the snow, even when you’re sick and in your softest lounging pants, oversized sweater and warm socks? They all have a soft textile in common. Keep it accessible by tossing blankets over the edge of a couch or armchair, and lots of pillows to sink into on the sofa. Utilize baskets, bins or cute totes to roll or fold blankets into and stack pillows decoratively.
I love to change out the accent couch pillows and throw blankets with each season. It’s so easy to transform the look of a room with different colors and materials. In the winter I choose thick, heavy blankets and red pillow covers. (In the summertime we use central air conditioning so switching to a lightweight blanket is nice.) It took me until well into my 30’s before I realized: buying decorative pillows is a waste of money if they don’t have a removable cover! They’re always getting ruined somehow, especially with kids and pets around. (By the way, my favorite store for inexpensive, great quality pillow covers is H&M Home.) I always want them to be fresh and clean, since some of the covers and blankets go in to storage for six months at a time (plus we have two cats) so I wash them regularly. Therefore buying washer-friendly cotton-blend is a must. Don’t get sucked into a beautiful blanket has to be dry clean only!
Lastly, remember that hygge isn’t just about being comfortable. True, it’s a feeling of warmth and security and coziness, but it’s also about the juxtaposition of elements. It’s the light from a candle in a dark room. The warmth and dryness you feel while sitting in front of a fire, only after spending hours outside on the slopes or shoveling your driveway. Feeling the security of shelter and home while a thunderstorm is raging. Bringing hygge into the home for the holidays is literal and figurative... creating a cozy, warm & comfortable space with items that ARE cozy, warm & comfortable. So grab a cup of tea, your favorite fuzzy socks, and soak it all in.
DAY 3: MUSIC
Do you hear what I hear? Listen closely, that ambient dinner music is the sound of happiness.
Silence can be good. For reflection, for reading, for sleep. But when it’s time to get in the holiday spirit, sometimes we need a little help. Carefully curated background music can do wonders for lifting the moods of everyone in the household.
Hygge focuses on being content with what you have, being present, and being part of a community. In the present age of consumerism & commercialism, it is easy to get swept up in a holiday shopping frenzy. Everywhere you look, from Halloween until Christmas Eve, stores are bombarding you with ads for Black Friday, Cyber Monday and random Wednesday specials that seem to last for weeks. Currently, my own email inbox is over 90% filled with store advertisements. Getting into the spirit does not mean getting in line, or online. Shift your perspective: you don’t have to take out your wallets to be a part of the Christmas community. As Buddy the Elf has taught us... “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” It all comes back to music! It’s joyful, infectious and so simple. You can be filled with merriment just by grabbing a tasty beverage, and tuning in to your favorite carols.
Knowing how powerful music can be, be sure you actually like what you’re listening to. Not every one of my favorite Christmas songs are up beat, but they bring a smile to my face and are filled with nostalgia from my childhood. Case in point: pretty much anything from the Charlie Brown Christmas album. There are many holiday songs that while sweet, can pull on your heartstrings and put you into a funk. DON’T LISTEN TO THOSE!
If you’re looking for inspiration, listen to this playlist I’ve created instead.
- The Christmas Song, Nat King Cole
- Christmas Canon, Trans-Siberian Orchestra
- Winter Song, Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson
- Baby It’s Cold Outside, Michael Bublé and Idina Menzel
- Skating, Vince Guaraldi Trio
- O Holy Night, Celine Dion
- Jingle Bells, Frank Sinatra
- A Marshmallow World, Dean Martin
- Toyland, Doris Day
- I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, Billie Holiday
- The Christmas Waltz, Peggy Lee
- It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, Michael Bublé
- I’ll Be Home for Christmas, She & Him
- O Tannenbaum, Vince Guaraldi Trio
- What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve, Kat Keyser & His Orchestra
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Ella Fitzgerald
- Auld Lang Syne, The Hotel Café Medley
- My Favorite Things, Leslie Odom Jr.
- Edelweiss, Nick Lachey
- White Christmas, Dean Martin
- Let It Snow, Diana Krall
- Christmas Is Coming, Vince Guaraldi Trio
As I’ve mentioned before, the Danes are among happiest people in the world, according to happiness studies (yes, there really is a happiness study, conducted at the Happiness Institute, no less!) So take a lesson from them... be content. Be present. Be happy. Instead of turning on the news when you get home, tune in to a Christmas station instead. I bet you’ll find your family is calmer, cheerful and more willing to be involved a conversation rather than a screen.
DAY 4: BEVERAGES
No matter what Nordic culture book you’re reading, blog you’re scanning or photo you’ve pinned, I guarantee 9 out of 10 will have some mention of a hot beverage. It is often said that hygge is more about a feeling rather than definition. So it is no wonder that steaming mugs of your favorite drink are a part of that. Whether it’s to wake you up on a chilly morning, or settle you down after a long day, to comfort you when you’re under the weather or bring you a bit of peace while at work, A cup of hot coffee, tea, cocoa, or cider can do wonders. It’s even better if you can curl up in a reading nook or oversized chair under a blanket.
This comfort is a year round practice, but as the snow falls and sticks to the ground, it’s a natural progression to drink warm beverages more frequently throughout the day. Perhaps this is why it goes hand-in-hand with Christmas time; the cold weather and gatherings with friends... there are endless opportunities to enjoy delicious concoctions during holidays. Probably one of the most well known in the Nordic region is gløgg. Nearly every family has their own variation of this mulled wine recipe. Not only is it delicious but the day-long preparation gives your home a wonderful holiday aroma. It is similar to German glühwein but with an additional depth of flavor from the gløgg essence, macerated raisins, dried fruit and almonds.
Picture this: the act of wrapping your hands around that steaming ceramic mug while lifting it to your nose. Closing your eyes and breathing it in, just before you gingerly take the first sip... this is hygge.
recipe from The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking
Cooking time is 20 minutes (plus soaking time for raisins)
For the gløgg essence:
- 4 handfuls of raisins
- 10 ounces port
- 1 bottle of heavy red wine, such as Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhone*
- 1cup brown sugar (preferably around sugar that consist of sugar crystals and cane syrup - but normal brown sugar will do)
- 8–10 cinnamon sticks
- 20 g allspice (whole)
- 20 g cloves (whole)
- 10 g cardamom (whole)
For the gløgg:
- 2 bottles of heavy red wine, such as Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhone
- 3/4 cup brown rum
- 3/4 cup akvavit (vodka)
- Peel of 1 orange
- 3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
- 1 cup chopped almonds
* don’t buy the cheapest, but it doesn’t have to be the best.
- Soak the raisins in the port, preferably for 24 hours.
- Start by making the gløgg essence. Pour the bottle of red wine into a pot, add the sugar and cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and cardamom, and heat to just below boiling point. Turn off the heat and allow to cool, then strain out the aromatics.
- Add the additional bottles of red wine, spirits, orange peel and juice to the clog essence. Again, heat to just below boiling point, and then add the raisins, port and the almonds. Serve warm.
DAY 5: SCENT
By now we are really getting into understanding the concept of hygge; contentment, togetherness, coziness. We’ve created that with warm textures, soft lighting and festive music. What better way to bring forth the happy nostalgia of Christmas from your youth then with the scents of the holiday?! I’m always impressed by how quickly a memory can surface once a smell sparks it. An old leather coat, pipe tobacco, a woman’s perfume; something that was long forgotten is momentarily so vivid!
So, re-create that in your own home, and make it memorable for your kids as well! There are many existing scents as a “given” during the holidays: of course there will be cookies baking in the oven, (more on that in a later post), scented candles of your favorite variety, and maybe even a batch of homemade gløgg. If you are among the families who opt for fresh Christmas trees, you’ll probably be picking them up any day now from the local farm or tree lot. That gives off tons of natural, piney freshness.
To really amp up the hygge factor, you can create a “simmer pot” or make your own potpourri. When I worked at a well known home & kitchen retail store, it was part of our daily routine to draw passerby's into the store by their noses, before they even saw our front door. During the holidays it was accomplished with cinnamon sticks, sliced oranges and apple cider. The rest of the year, there was a more savory pot of onions, garlic and herbs which can also be equally inviting.
Creating your own can be just as easy and welcoming. Ingredients like apple cider, sliced citrus, fresh rosemary, cranberries, vanilla, cloves and cinnamon sticks incredible! You can simmer a small batch on your stovetop, just be sure to add water throughout the day otherwise your pan will scorch. I love using a small crockpot, if you have one. The heat is so low that you don’t have to worry about it drying out too quickly.
Dried citrus and fresh greenery makes for a great potpourri centerpiece that is also beautiful to look at. It’s a bonus that it also happens to be all natural, just in case any little hands (or paws) decide to taste test! This orange tower is a beautiful fresh centerpiece that would also smell fantastic. I love using dried orange slices paired with eucalyptus and cinnamon sticks, but get creative with whatever “Christmas at home” smells like to you.
DAY 6: BOOKS
Reading books can be incredibly hyggeligt. Even more so if they are vintage books or hold some nostalgic meaning for you. Curling up under that cozy blanket and settling in for quiet time to yourself is just the thing to counter all the running around from holiday shopping. It is a way to relax yourself and unwind, focus on the soothing scents, soft lighting and lack of noise. Stories such as “A Christmas Carol”, “Gift of the Magi” or even “Little Women” would be wonderful options during the holidays. But it’s all about personal preference at the end of the day. Who’s to say that “Twilight, “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “Crazy Rich Asians” can’t be your next holiday classic? If it brings you a sense of contentment and happiness, then it’s hygge.
If you have young children around, and they are still at an age where they love to be read too, this can also be a very hygge moment for the family. Your little one, tucked into the crook of your arm, while you read their favorite stories aloud creates such a beautiful moment and memory that they will cherish for years to come. You can create a wonderful tradition that hopefully they will carry-on to their children as well.
For the past few years we have incorporated the tradition of an advent calendar by wrapping a different holiday book for the first 24 days of the month. Sometimes it is about different cultures, sometimes it’s funny, other times more heartfelt; but we always read them together after the children get their pajamas on. The books do not have to be brand new. In fact, we often put them away when we take the trees down at the end of the season so they just feel new to them. We picked up many of our books inexpensively at local consignment stores or garage sales.
It is easy to feel supercharged amidst the excitement of Santa, presents, and endless plates of homemade cookies & sweets. Reading books can refocus and calm even the most crazed sugar highs, and perhaps after dinner or just before bed, would be the ideal time. Don’t forget to grab your mug of tea!
DAY 7: CHRISTMAS CARDS
Writing Christmas cards every year can be quite a chore. But it’s all about perspective. It has become one of my favorite activities for the holiday season. We begin by scheduling our family photos with our favorite photographer in October. It is my favorite time of the year since the leaves are starting to turn and there is just the slightest chill in the air. The days are still long and there is a wonderful golden hue in the evening. So capturing this beautiful moment is worth every penny! Of course, you don’t have to hire a professional photographer. Christmas cards photos aren’t about creating the perfect scene, it’s about sharing a favorite moment with those you care about. Some of my favorite photos from friends are also those were the baby is crying in Santa's lap and everyone else looks to disheveled or grumpy. Everyone has been there at one time or another, and knows what it’s like, but those are often the most memorable.
Usually I’ll wait until Black Friday sales to find wonderful deals on beautiful stationery. I am a self proclaimed “stationery snob”. The feel of thick cardstock and foil lined envelopes are heavenly to me. It just adds to my hyggeligt moment, but it doesn’t equate to expensive. Other family members craft a beautiful letter highlighting their year. Some have their children draw a festive scene and photocopy it for everyone. I have a few incredibly talented friends and family members who are artists and will create their own Christmas card worthy of the Norman Rockwell Museum. They’re so beautiful, I leave them up all year. I truly admire their talents since drawing and watercolors were never gifts bestowed upon me. I will stick with my keen ability to pick out pretty stationery!
Who doesn’t love getting a Christmas card in the mail from loved ones? It’s like opening dozens of mini gifts in the days leading up to Christmas! Even the act of sitting down to address each one and write a little sentiment letting them know I’ve thought about them over the year... it brings me so much joy and peace. I like to choose a time in the middle of the day where I might have an hour or so to myself (read: naptime for the toddler during a school day). I’ll of course, warm up a nice mug of tea or start a fresh pot of coffee, and set up a writing station. A clean surface, my box of cards, favorite pens and even a return address stamp. I had ours custom-made after we purchased our first home together, and each time I use it I’m reminded of how happy we were that day we signed the mortgage papers! You guessed it... how hyggeligt.
Displaying the cards we receive is just as rewarding... like a paper hug! I’ll hang them around a door frame, like my grandma used to, or sometimes clip them to a giant wreath with little clothespins. Every time I walk by, I get to see the smiling faces of my closest friends and family. After Christmas is over and I take all the cards down, I cut out the photos and attach them to the inside door of my kitchen cabinet. I’ll leave them up all year until the new ones arrive in December, and the entire process starts over again.
DAY 8: GET OUTDOORS
As I’ve already mentioned, so much of hygge is the juxtaposition between the feeling of safe and cozy interior and the cold or wet elements of the outdoors. Making the best of bad weather can be as easy as dressing properly.
Living in upstate New York, we get all the snow. As Ron Swanson (very well could) have said, “what I think you heard is ‘a lot of snow’ but what I really said is... ALL the snow.” We have so much snow, in fact, we ship it out to other cities who are in need of meeting their annual rainfall quota. There are different words to describe what kind of snow we are getting: wet, slushy, fluffy, dry, icy, etc. There is even a best type of snow to make a snowman or go skiing. Some snows are particularly difficult to shovel as they are very heavy or icy. But my point is, we make the best of it despite what type it is. Kids love of course, the very “packable” kind. It’s a little heavier, but not too wet. It makes for the best snowman. Whatever it is you like to do outdoors in the winter, whether it be skiing, sledding, hiking, snowboarding, or just avoiding it altogether, be sure you are properly dressed for it.
Make sure you have the basics: gloves or mittens, hats, scarves, a warm coat and boots. Multiple pairs of each are highly suggested as some can get wet and ruin the day very quickly, while others merely do not help your hairstyle.
Dressing for the weather it’s pretty intuitive; it’s not so much about where you live, just how many more layers you need. Proper footwear, however, is crucial. I myself, have at least three different kinds of books: short “duck” boots to wear when when it might just be a bit slushy outside; tall rain boots for (obviously) larger puddles of slush & rain; additionally, very thick fur-lined snowboots for those days I plan to be outside for extended periods of time or when we’re playing in the snow with the boys.
To up the hygge factor, be like the Danish and accessorize with scarves. As The Little Book of Hygge author Meik Wiking suggests, “the bigger the better!” Their style is simple, “bordering on lazy.” Oh, and everyone wears black, sometimes changing it up with the occasional shade of grey. I especially love the large but thin blanket scarves that are so in style right now, and personally can’t say no to plaid accessories!