Cultural ideas of coziness: Comparing hygge with maginhawa



HYGGE, roughly pronounced hoo-geh, is a Danish word that is difficult to translate but, very approximately, means “coziness” or “comfort and intimacy between close family and friends”. Many Danes regard this quality as a quintessential element of the national character. It is said that “hygge is to Danes what freedom is to Americans.” In the run-up to the Christmas season, a surprising number of books written in English, up to a dozen in the space of a few months, have appeared promoting this state of Danish well-being. Various authors have described it as an attitude of relaxation and exclusiveness, the sort of warm, convivial feeling that, say, sipping cocoa by candlelight among a circle of intimates might evoke. Marketed as a way for foreigners to access the relaxed, tight-knit, egalitarian Danish lifestyle, hygge consumerist trappings–fluffy dressing gowns, cashmere sweaters, hand-knitted socks, hand-sewn cushions, recipes for spicy buns and breads, scented candles–speak of the simple pleasures of warm hearths and homes, the feelings of safety, solace and trust that comes with being among those you hold dearest and closest, implicitly celebrating authentic, simple pleasures and the solidarity of small communities.

Mid-winter in northern Europe is bleak. The skies are the color of slate, temperatures drop to minus degrees, bitter winds freeze tears in the eyes, darkness falls in the early afternoon, around 3 or 4p.m., and the sun does not rise until past 8a.m. It is a relief to get indoors, to be warm and safe again, and to close the door to the outside world. Inside is pleasant, familiar, consoling, orderly and peaceful. Rooms glow with low-watt lamps and candlelight, sheepskin rugs are thrown over worn armchairs, there might be a stew simmering on the stove and a tray of freshly baked buns cooling on a table. This picture of idyllic, domestic blissfulness seems like an Instagram fantasy. But walk down the streets of certain neighborhoods in a host of Scandinavian cities, or in Vienna, or in Amsterdam, especially in the Oud-Zuid district, where bicycles with baby-seats lean on walls, and bakfiets, the distinctive wooden cargo bikes are parked on cobblestone pavements, and one sees, through the windows of houses, similar scenes of coziness and the good life. The atmosphere of warmth, comfort, calmness, and familiarity is also one of reassuring conformity and sameness.

Hygge has a number of equivalents: in German it is gemutlichkeit, in Dutch it is gezelligheid, in Hungarian it is kellemes. Coziness, peace of mind, and communality all characterize these words. Habits of hygge and interpretations of gezellig may be subjective and vary according to class, taste and income. For some it is drinking beer with friends in a pub, for others it is a glass of wine and listening to classical music at home. Gezellig or hygge is instinctively and emphatically marked by conformity. Those groups that deviate from accepted interpretations, or are unable to create hygge or be gezellig,are deemed offensive, decisively excluded, and shut out.

Danes, according to UN reports, are the happiest people on the planet. Dutch children are the happiest children. In these small countries, stability, order and social acceptance are fiercely defended societal norms. Class differences are smoothened out by an unwillingness to overtly acknowledge social status and income. Citizens are willing to pay for this egalitarianism through high taxation systems that fund comprehensive social welfare, and modesty, thrift, conformity and insularity are deeply embodied cultural values.

It is formidably hard for outsiders to get friendly with locals in these societies. If Danes have a reputation for aloofness, the Dutch are eye wateringly blunt and possess a sense of humor that can come across as tough, crude, and cruel. For these citizens, being with strangers and making new friends is excruciating, decidedly un-hygge, un-gezellig. This year’s quality of life and personal happiness indexes for expatriates, compiled by an organization called InterNations, shows that while natives of northern climes may feel contented and happy in their own countries, foreigners feel far less so. Denmark is ranked 67th for the ease of finding friends, and the Netherlands is 51st in terms of foreigners feeling personal happiness. Contrast this with the Philippines that, in the category of personal happiness for foreigners, is ranked 4th, coming after Mexico.

In Tagalog, maginhawa and maaliwalas might be the rough linguistic equivalents to conditions of coziness and well-being. But the meanings could not be more starkly different to hygge. The Tagalog words evoke well-ventilated spaciousness, freshness and airiness that is associated with openness, healthfulness, ease, serenity, as well as comfort and relief.

December in the tropics brings bright, clear skies, dry, cooling and salubrious breezes, and minimal rain. The nights are star-filled, yellow-mooned. Food is varied, festive, nostalgic and innovative. And best clothes are worn, new shoes shown off. Filipino gatherings at this time of the year are large, extravagant, loud, boisterous affairs composed of waves of visitors, whom one may know or not, ebbing and flowing through the house. Humor, by turns subtle and vulgar, depends on verbal dexterity to elicit laughter.

Filipino ideas of well-being, it seems, are not about shutting out the world, excluding strangers, and hunkering down in small groups behind closed doors. It is an outward, sociable mindset that celebrates plenitude and cultivates expansive networks. Climatic differences aside, cultural concepts of coziness in the Philippines tend to revel in the joys of abundance, of food, family, and friends new and old. All are received with the same wide, welcoming embrace.
Twitter @RachelAurea


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