Last winter, here in Maine, even I, a born-and-raised Alaskan, got sick of the snow and ice and bitter cold. February was a dark-grey slog, but March seemed even worse. The increasing daylight just served to remind us how much snow there was still on the ground. The effect was such that this year, with El Nino delaying our first real snow until after Christmas, no one really seemed to care that it hadn’t fallen yet, even though we generally welcome winter and the outdoor opportunities it brings. We were all still recovering.
As my children get older, they are starting to voice some of the dread they sense about the post-holiday winter months. Leading up to Christmas this year, my younger daughter worried about how to avoid that let-down feeling of Christmas afternoon and the days following. She was all too aware that the anticipation she was feeling has a downside, that the post-holiday blues are real. American culture emphasizes punishment for holiday excess; no wonder children often feel anxiety in the aftermath. All around them, people are bemoaning the weight gained, the money spent. Ads on television focus on dieting, cold remedies, and tax season.
We need to be gentler with ourselves, so that our children feel it, too.
The Danish art of “hygge” (pronounced hooga) emphasizes kindness to oneself, moments of comfort from simple things like candlelight, cozy socks, warm baked goods, quiet dinners with friends. The idea is that when one is kind to oneself, it is easier to be kind to others. I see a need especially for reframing the period after the celebrations are over and the bleakness of mid-winter sets in.
Hygge is important in combating the long winter darkness in northern climates, but people feel the post-holiday letdown even in warmer, sunnier places. Hygge can be anything that looks or feels like self-care, and can be different for everybody, though there is much hygge in quiet companionship with one other person or a small group.
Teaching children the art of hygge is easily done both by example and by helping them reflect on the simple things that make them happy. I am from Alaska, and the Gwich’in Athabascan people I grew up with practice the concept of hygge by emphasizing the connection between self-care and care of the community. In Gwich’in country, hygge is things like sharing hunted meat, getting wood for elders, and drinking tea with friends.
A friend of mine, a half-Dane who grew up in the same village I did, says of hygge that “you can find this feeling in something that brings you peace, comfort, joy, warm happiness…in a place that makes you feel like you belong…with two or 20 friends, with someone who shares a feeling in a moment. It’s a feeling we have all felt, in a situation we have all been in, despite our cultural backgrounds, our political differences, our religious affiliations. But the Danes made a word for it.”
Families can practice hygge by recognizing what sorts of things affect each other’s moods in January and February (and March, if winter’s especially long). Feeling penned in by the weather? Bundle up and run around outside together, even if you get cold and wet. Move your muscles and oxygenate your blood, and then come inside and warm up in a hot shower or bath. Tired of going from place to place, from school and work to sports practice, music lessons, or meetings? Pick a night to stay in after the sun goes down. Spend 20 minutes tidying up your living space together and then share a simple meal.
Gratitude is a big part of hygge, seeing and appreciating the small moments and things in our lives that are valuable for the way they nourish our souls. Last winter, I handed a “care kit” (a bag filled with snacks and some basic necessities like Band-Aids and ibuprofen) through the window of my mini-van to a man who stood in the frigid wind with a “Homeless Vietnam Vet” sign in his bare hands. Our fingers touched and then clung together briefly as he looked in at me. “God Bless you, sweetheart,” he said. Our family had made these bags on Christmas morning as a way of emphasizing the “giving” part of that particular holiday. I felt the man’s blessing deep in my chest, and drove away with tears pouring down my cheeks.
The second part of that blessing came when I told my children how much their gifts mattered, and now when we drive anywhere, their eyes are peeled for anyone standing on a traffic island looking like they could use a care kit and a little human contact.
Understanding that there are needs greater than our own can help us feel grateful for what we have, which makes self-care easier, which makes caring for others something we do naturally. January’s hard, sometimes February’s harder. Hygge can help.
Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes teaches and writes in Maine. She’s on Twitter @efstokes.
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