The Meaning of Hygge, Denmark’s Spiritual Foundation

| Published: | Updated: June 16, 2022 | , , , ,

Meaning of Hygge Revealed at Denmark’s Northern Tip

A quest to determine the meaning of hygge was the reason for my trip to Denmark. I had read about the Danish cultural phenomenon of hygge (pronounced “hue-ga”) and was intrigued with a reference to it as the ‘spiritual foundation of Denmark’.

My curiosity was further piqued when I learned there was no direct English translation for hygge. I did, however, learn that the related 16th century Norwegian word hugga, which means “to comfort” was the linguistic forerunner of “hug”. That sealed the deal. I booked my arrangements to go to Denmark for a metaphysical hug.

It was only in hindsight that I realized that I had my first encounter with hygge almost immediately after landing at the Aaolborg airport.

I had splurged on a driver to transport me from the airport in Aaolborg to Skagen in North Jutland, the northernmost point of the country. As we began our journey to Skagen, I asked Kaj about the meaning of hygge, and what it meant to him. He screwed up his face, thinking intently, eager to help me understand.

“Well…it’s the family, around the table, having wonderful conversation,” he replied. “With a fire in the fireplace. And candles lit, lots of candles.”

Meaning of Hygge Family

“I see…so warmth is important in hygge?” I asked.

“Noooo…” Kaj replied. “A snowball fight can be hygge.”

Kaj was the first Dane to introduce me to the idea that the meaning of hugge was personal.

Saeby Offers A Take On The Meaning Of Hygge

Our first stop was Saeby or “sea town,” a picturesque village that inspired a number of Danish writers, including Henrik Ibsen. His play “The Lady from the Sea” is commemorated here with an impressive statue—its puts to shame Copenhagen’s diminutive “Little Mermaid.” A series of sky blue tug boats were moored along the small port, amid sleek white sailboats and chunky houseboats festooned with floating gardens of geraniums and marigolds.

Saeby is set amid verdant fields and separated from the sandy shoreline by a narrow canal, lined with brightly-colored boats in shades of green, blue and red. Blonde, sunburned families sat at picnic tables outside small takeout eateries, licking ice cream cones. Standing sentinel over this riot of color was the stark white tower of Saeby Klosterkirke, a former Carmelite monastery, the lines of its roof ascending like steps to the tip of its peak, in iconic Scandinavian architectural style.

I wandered around with a big goofy grin on my face, madly snapping photographs of all the details of daily life in this happy hamlet—kerchiefs pinned to a clothesline and flapping in the breeze, a topiary in the shape of a teddy bear on someone’s front steps, a mother duck leading a parade of her offspring down a cattail-lined canal. It all seemed so wholesome, relaxed and tranquil—the kind of existence I yearned for, exuding what I imagined to be the meaning of hygge.

Boats Saeby
Saeby is both tranquil and colorful.
Boats Saeby Denmark
Photos: Meg Pier

The Legend of Thundershield

My driver Kaj regaled me with a bit of Danish lore. He told me of the legend of Thundershield, a vice admiral in the Danish navy in the 1700s, who Kaj called a “devil may care,” with obvious admiration. While in a heated battle with the British in the Great Northern War, Thundershield’s ship ran out of ammunition. He signaled this to his opponent, adding “May I borrow some of yours?” The English commander was so amused that, while he declined to provide his enemy with gunpowder, he did invite him over for a drink, and thus ended the battle.

Meaning of Hygge Christian Molsted Painting
Image Credit: Christian Mølsted , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fact or fiction, I loved the story and found it emblematic of the dry, deadpan humor of the Danes. Could absurdist humor be an ingredient in the meaning of hygge?

Stepping Into Beauty

Kaj also humored me with several pit stops so that I could take photographs of the stunning scenery. Over the next 20 miles I saw images so vivid and beautiful it seemed as if they were conjured up on my command—a massive field of lavender stretching out to the horizon, with a simple, stark white cottage in its midst; three compact and stocky Icelandic ponies, in a field of emerald green, heads tilted at the same angle, huge liquid eyes looking directly at me; a charming mill house on the banks of a stream, the wooden slats of its paddle wheel slapping the water. Kaj pointed out the salmon ladder aside the mill’s small waterfall, designed to help the fish home on their annual migration to spawn. Each of these scenes spoke to me of contentment, fulfilled some longing.

Meaning of Hygge

Meaning of Hygge

Rabjerg Mile: Denmark’s Fast-Moving Sahara

With directions from one of the many cyclists cruising the Danish countryside, we arrived at the first attraction on my checklist, Rabjerg Mile—a huge expanse of undulating sand dunes 12 stories high and about a square kilometer. Far from practically being under glass as the case might be in the U.S., Northern Denmark’s answer to the Sahara is easily accessible and open to the curious to wade in.

The projection of land known as the “Skaw” first formed during the Ice Age, as melting glaciers elevated the sea bottom around north Denmark. The dunes on the west coast of this promontory were initially covered with vegetation, but the effects of the “Little Ice Age” of the 1500s, combined with over-grazing by livestock, stripped the dunes of the binding plant life that anchored them in place.

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Thus began a massive migration by the dunes that covered 1,000 meters between the 1300s, when the area was first settled, and the late 1700s. While other sandy areas of the Skaw have been planted since the 1830s to prevent such drifting, the Rabjerg Mile is allowed to go where the breeze takes it. It is heading ever-eastward toward the Baltic Sea at an annual rate of 15 – 20 meters.

I found awe-inspiring the idea that Scandinavia’s answer to the Sahara was being blown away over huge distances, a grain at a time. I loved the idea of a magnificent, invisible, liberating force lifting and transporting the tiniest of particles to a better place, and, in the process, effecting change on a grand scale. I could think of nothing better than the sensation of being carried away by a divine breeze.

Meaning of Hygge Rabjerg Mile Beach
The Rabjerg Mile offers both a workout and a metaphysical lesson. Photo: Heje, CC BY-SA 2.0Wiki Commons

We turned into the virtually empty parking lot, steps from the bottom of the hills and got out to begin our climb. We laughed together as we battled the strong wind that had been slowly moving this patch of earth for the past 700-plus years.

Each step required exaggerated exertion as our feet sunk deep in the sand and a fierce air current moved in from the water like a freight train. I struggled to bend over to take my shoes off and Kaj lent me his shoulder, insisting he carry my sneakers.

As I spastically fought the earth and air, my hair flying wildly about me in all directions, I would catch glimpses of Kaj ahead of me, his tie flapping in the strong breeze, suit jacket in one hand and my shoes in the other. The absurdity of the situation happily overwhelmed me and I doubled over in laughter, the wind catching and carrying away my saliva. Enthralled with the moment, my ongoing existential angst was seemingly snatched away by the warm, whipping wind.

It was an exhilarating climb to the top of the huge pile of sand and as we caught our breath, Kaj pointed for me to look back at the path of our ascent. The long trail of our footsteps was already being erased by the billowing gusts.

Meaning of Hygge Rabjerg Mile Beach

He gently put his hands on my shoulder and said “That was the hard part! This will be fun!” And with that, he began careening down the side of the Rabjerg Mile, taking one huge leap after another. I hesitated only briefly before jumping myself. Because of the dune’s soft surface I had no fear of falling and didn’t fight gravity, allowing myself the freedom of momentum. The spills I took were met with a soft landing and laughter. Back at the car, I shook off the sand with a big smile on my face, feeling lighter than I had in a long time.

The Meaning of Hygge Lies in The Buried Church

A short ride away was Skagen, where Kaj deposited me after we confirmed plans to meet at the end of the next day for my return to the airport. I took my pick of the myriad seafood restaurants housed in the red former fish warehouses rimming the harbor. After a delicious lunch, I left Skagen’s waterfront behind to make my way to the mysterious site that had first inspired my interest in coming to Denmark.

Meaning of Hygge VisitSkagen
Image Credit: VisitSkagen, Facebook.
Meaning of Hygge Skagen
Image Credit: Rüdiger Stehn, Flickr.

Soon enough, I was bouncing along in a taxi to Tilsandede Kirke, or “the buried church,” located three miles away, in the nature reserve of Skagen Klitplantage. In the 1790s, the church was all but swallowed by the great sand drift that created Rabjerg Mile. Because of climate conditions in the late 18th century, the rate at which the sand moved accelerated during this era to 50 meters annually. The parishioners eventually gave up digging themselves in and out of worshipping here and now only the tower remains as a place of pilgrimage for tourists.

The Meaning of Hygge Is Hard to Explain

I asked my young cab driver Thomas about and what is the meaning of hygge, and he seemed flummoxed. “It’s hard to explain in any one way. It means many things.”

I pressed him to try and he offered, “Copenhagen is a hygge city. People are more relaxed and casual, even with strangers, much more than you would find in capital cities elsewhere.”

That rang true but I still wanted more details.

“Baking at Christmas is hygge. Christmas is very hygge,” he declared quite emphatically.

Thomas offered to turn the meter off while I followed the sandy path to the church, saying he’d take a bit of a stroll himself, “keeping you in eyesight of course.” I was charmed by his courtesy in this safe and peaceful place.

Months earlier I had stumbled across photographs of its white tower protruding from a rolling hill and was struck by a profound desire to see the strange sight in person. The image was starkly symbolic of the state of my faith at that time—flattened and overpowered by a relentless, unpredictable force that seemed indomitable, inscrutable and indiscriminate.

Now, my anticipation mounted as I walked through a wild landscape of pale sea grass, swathes of heather in pinkish and sienna hues and gnarled fir trees with branches contorted by the wind. Mounting a small slope, I saw the spare lines of the solitary edifice rising from dunes and stood still there for several minutes, breathing in the salty sea air and fragrant aroma of pine, absorbing the sight of a half-buried faith.

Meaning of Hygge Ste Laurentius
Ste. Laurentius was once one of the largest churches in Northern Europe. Photo: Malene Thyssen

Magic Hour at Ste. Laurentius

Feeling content in this serene and mysterious place, I photographed the white-washed tower protruding from a rolling hill, the lines of its roof ascending like steps to its peak. The structure almost seemed to radiate in the extended “magic hour” of one of Denmark’s long summer days.

My fascination with the area’s ambiance was only heightened as I learned more about the history of the church, officially named Ste. Laurentius, and the neighboring community.

Ste. Laurentius was once one of the largest churches in Northern Europe. The first recorded reference to it was in a priest’s papers in 1387, when he wrote of 20 kilometers of expensive cloth being brought to it for safekeeping after being salvaged from a ship stranded off Skagen’s west coast. Salvage and life-saving operations were long part of the everyday fabric of life in Skagen. From 1860 – 1889, 506 ships ran aground on the sands off this tip of Denmark.

Saeby House
Photo Credit: Meg Pier

The Land of Light

The Skagen Local History Museum displays personal accounts of numerous rescue operations, which make clear any potential gain from salvage efforts came at an incredibly high cost. The December 27, 1862 rescue attempt of the stranded Swedish ship “Daphne” left eight Skagen widows and 25 fatherless children.

Michael Ax, director of Skagen Local History Museum, observed: “I am sure that a ship in trouble would be met with mixed feelings by the citizens in Skagen. They were much aware that fellow humans were in deep distress and that they themselves had to put their lives at stake to save the sailors. But on the other hand, they were also very much aware that a new wreck meant a possible good income, or at least a chance to get hold of some luxury goods like cloth, ceramics, building material and so on.”

Meaning of Hygge Skagen Local History Museum
Image Credit: Skagens Museum

The heroic fishermen were a frequent subject of the artists’ colony that took root in the area’s sandy soil during painting’s Golden Age in the mid-late 1800s. With the advent of en pleun air and the first broad brush strokes of Impressionism, painters such as Holger Drachmann and Michael Ancher were drawn to this “Land of Light,” as Northern Denmark is known, to capture its luminous essence for posterity.

The Meaning of Hygge Can Be Sad

My next visit was to the Skagen Museum, where I took in its centennial exhibit featuring 582 paintings hung salon style, from floor to ceiling, as was done in the day of the Skagen painters. Dating from 1847-1927, it was an impressive body of work that depicted the French Naturalism style the colony’s founders had studied, and taught.

I was captivated by Michael Ancher’s 1896 “The Drowned Fisherman,” a painting that depicts the slicker-clad deceased laid out on a cottage table, surrounded by his wife and fellow fishermen, old and teen-aged. Each mourner has a somber but very distinctive expression; I felt as though I could read each one’s personal thoughts about the loss.

Meaning of Hygge The Drowned Fisherman Painting
Image Credit: Skagen Museum

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I learned the painting was inspired by the death of Lars Kruse, a favorite model of the area artists. Kruse was master of the Skagen Lifeboat for 31 years, during which 180 people were rescued at sea. Three days after his part in the 1894 rescue of the “Gesiene,” Kruse drowned in his own boat while fishing.

I wondered if hygge could also be sad. My sensory picture of the meaning of hygge was beginning to come into focus and it seemed to be emerging as what a certain generation of Americans know as “warm and fuzzy.” While that feeling certainly is a good one, I had experienced it not just during happy times of celebration but also in the midst of dark passages.

The Meaning of Hygge Shaped by Myths

Mette Bogh Jensen, curator of the Skagen Museum, says it is a myth that painters congregated in Skagen because of the light. She acknowledges that there is more hours of sunlight here in the summer than many places in the world, but attributes the artists’ attraction to the area more to adventure, economics and its emblematic motifs, such as the local fisherman.

“The artists came to Skagen because they were fascinated by the exoticness of the place, that it was far from the cities, difficult to get to, cheap to live in, and the fact there were other artists coming as well, and they could be a part of a community,” she said.

My next stop was to get a glimpse of how these artists had lived. I crossed the street from the Museum to the Michael and Anna Ancher House and, despite having to garb myself in protective footwear that looked like shower caps for my feet, I felt immediately at home. Danish culture and minimalism had not yet occurred to anyone in 1884 when the Anchers bought and began filling their home. And I do mean “filling” it.

Meaning of Hygge Ancher House
Exterior of the Ancher House. Photo: Ignacio Gallego Creative Commons, CC BY 2.5
Meaning of Hygge Ancher House Arial View
Anchers Hus in Skagen. Photo: CC BY 2.5

Inside the Ancher House

The museum’s partial listing of the home’s contents include: door moldings Michael lifted from an old local house; a copper ceiling lampshade likely made from a pair of scales; an 1800 beechwood settee, bought on auction in the old grocery store in Sondervej by a fisherman who sold it to the Anchers; Royal Copenhagen dinner service with flower decoration on white ground, received from senior dune warden in exchange for a painting; and an ottoman, made by J.P. Larssen, lightship master of Skagen who was known for his “strangely carved furniture.”

Meaning of Hygge Ancher House Interior
Dining room inside Anchers Hus. Photo: Jerrye and Roy Klotz, CC BY-SA 3.0

And, of course, paintings—upon paintings. The entire house was virtually wallpapered with the Anchers’ art and that of their compadres.

This was as far as you could get from the sterile, sparse, form-following-function image I had of a Danish home. An avid collector myself, or pack rat as my husband would say, little did I know I had been channeling Michael and Anna’s interior design philosophy—stuff, lots of it.

Grenan Sandbar

The Danish Language Foundation defines the meaning of hygge as an atmosphere of friendship and harmony, noting that we tend to take care of people we like by comforting them and keeping them warm and cozy. On the basis of this rationale, a house, a chair, a blanket or a sweater can be hygge, as can people or gatherings.

I was about to vicariously enjoy just such a hygge happening at the Grenan, a couple of miles north of Skagen. This crooked finger of sand beckoned—it marks the very tip of Denmark, a latitudinal notch for my belt. Always competitive, ever a person of extremes, I am irresistibly drawn to anything with the superlative suffix “est” attached. Middle of the road mediocrity was to be avoided at all costs; farthest, fastest, largest, longest—these were the measuring sticks I had lived my life by. While I was making a concerted effort to leave this mindset behind, old habits die hard.

Grenen qualified as a worthy destination. The headland is the northernmost part of one the world’s largest spits, the Skagen Odde, formed by the same sediments that created the Rabjerg Mile. While the Rabjerg dunes are a sensation because of their heights, the Grenen sandbar is extraordinary in its determined inching toward neighboring Sweden. Now 1.5 miles long, Grenen’s very tip is growing about 26 feet every year, like an outstretched index finger aching to make contact with Gothenburg 85 miles across the white-capped water.

I arrived at Grenan at 5 p.m., and began hiking out to the headland. I passed the grave of 19th century painter Holger Drachmann nestled in the dunes, thinking it was a lovely spot to spend eternity, and wondering if someone could actually choose to be buried on Grenan now if they so desired.

Meaning of Hygge Grenan Beach
Photo Credit: Michelle Nørgaard Lund Mayo

A Constant State of Transformation

While it’s light until about 10 p.m. during summer in Skagen, the beach was sparsely populated as I made my way toward the end of Denmark. Wading northward through crystal clear waters with shoes in hand, I noticed a lovely lavender shape floating with the tide. I stood mesmerized by the motion of the jellyfish, a species that had stung me as a child, conscious of seeing it not a threat but a thing of beauty.

The Grenan’s hefty dunes trickled down to a sparse golden strand that bravely served as the dividing line between the dark waters of the calm Baltic, or Kattegat in Danish, and the emerald North Sea, or Skagerak. I drew closer to the point, a delicate wisp of beach dangling in a churning expanse of blue-green. A foaming line of whitecaps stretched out miles to the horizon line, separating the seas. Alone at this intersection of sand, sea, and sky, I felt small amidst the vastness around me. I was surprised to realize that rather than feeling insignificant in the face of the enormous forces around me, I had a deep sense of connection.

Meaning of Hygge Rabjerg Mile Beach
Image Credit: Inge La

It is the fast-moving currents of the two clashing bodies of water that pile more sand unto Grenen’s shores and propel it further north. Grenen is in a constant state of transformation, with each day’s weather and waves adding new texture and contours to its shape and character. I liked the idea that Grenen grew and became more solid and substantive in response to the forces that prevailed upon it. This was a new and positive way of looking at the inevitable encounters with outside influences that I always saw as menacing rather than enhancing.

The Meaning of Hygge is a Newfound Awareness

As if on cue, like an affirmation of my newfound awareness, the sound of laughter made me look over my shoulder. Three big-wheeled tractors pulling open-air tourist trolleys crested a dune behind me. The vehicles snaked their way across the shifting sands, encircled me and rolled to a halt. A small crowd spilled out of the buggies, dapper and dazzling in tuxes and gowns. With champagne glasses in hand, they surged toward the shoreline, and stood barefoot on the Grenan’s tiny tail curving out into the water. I felt privileged to witness others’ hygge. A blonde man looked at me, smiled and raised his glass. I grinned back at him, imagining he was toasting my epiphany.

Meaning of Hygge Grenan
Hygge on the Grenan Photo: Meg Pier

Making Changes That Last Hundreds of Years

The next day, I explored Gammel or “old” Skagen, a summer enclave of Denmark’s well-to-do. Clusters of bright, low yellow houses and red roofs peek out from behind and around sprawling sand dunes, each home enthusiastically brandishing the Dannebrog, the Danish flag.

“Skagen yellow” is a rich, radiant shade of gold wash that nearly all the region’s houses are painted in, each capped with a wavy red-tiled roof. The story goes that, back in the day, due to Skagen’s remoteness, one large quantity of ochre paint was bought annually for the Whitsuntide whitewashing of the town’s houses. One year, some French golden ochre was delivered by mistake. The townspeople decided they preferred the sunny shade, and its use has stuck for hundreds of years.

Meaning of Hygge Gammel Stan Home
A Gammel Stan home in Skagen yellow sits atop the dunes. Photo: Meg Pier

The Meaning of Hygge is Mindfulness

As I walked down toward the beach in the early hours, a trickle of old and young bathers emerged up the hill, wet from their restorative morning swim and wrapped in heavy towels, smiling hello.

I was reminded of the definition area resident Rene Zeeberg gave me for the meaning of hygge.

“Yesterday I sat on the beach, the sun was shining, the waves were quietly washing up on the shore, and my dog was running around picking up different scents. I was throwing small stones on to the water, and then my girlfriend called to tell me she was on her way. The whole situation was what the meaning of hygge is about. Nature, scenery, fresh air, good company—either with your friends and family, a dog, or through a phone call.”

It dawned on me that maybe the meaning of hygge is Danish for mindfulness, for simply being present in the moment. Years later, in my ongoing encounters with life’s unknowns, I try to remember my lesson I learned from Danish culture in going with the flow.

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