“Is there a moment quite as keen
or memory as bright
As light and fire and music sweet
to warm the winter’s night?”
~ A Leaf from the Tree of Songs, Adam Victor Christianson
“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for talk beside the fire; it is the time for home.” ~British poet and critic, Dame Edith Sitwell
In an earlier post I mentioned that I am a reformed winter-hater, only recently having learned to enjoy the colder months for their slower pace, their friendliness towards contemplation, and their invitation to get cozy. Part of this new embrace of shortened days and bulky layers owes to my discovery of the practice of “hygge.” As the trend toward all things hygge swept America a few years back, I registered that a “hyggely” atmosphere is one I have long cultivated and found comfort in, though I’d never had a name for it. Hygge, pronounced “hoo-gah,” comes from a Norwegian word, “hugga,” dating back to the sixteenth-century, and means “to comfort” or “to console” (The New Yorker). It also, charmingly, is related to the English word “hug.” The Danes are known for perfecting hygge to an art, and many claim the Danish culture of hygge is a significant reason Danes are considered some of the happiest people on earth, despite living in a Scandinavian climate that is cool to cold the better part of the year. Most readers already will be familiar with “hygge” by now, but to summarize what makes something hyggely, imagine lots of warmly lit rooms, anything cozy; soft, inviting blankets, comforting foods; easy, gentle company, and feelings of good will and well being. A fire in the hearth, a hearty soup on the stove; fuzzy, Nordic socks, and a low-key gathering of friends around a candle-strewn room are all hyggely images.
Although the concept of hygge extends well beyond the use of warm lighting, this is the element I find myself embracing most during cold months. I use candles: both battery operated and real (I particularly prize those with wood wicks for their crackle), and I take delight in adding various decorations that shed light around a darkening room as evening sets in. I highly recommend adding whimsical elements, especially items that create a flickering or spinning effect. In particular, I cherish the delicate, silver votive carousels my husband brought back from Copenhagen for our family. One features spinning silver cat cut-outs, the other a rotating silver moon and stars. Lighting the flame of the tea light in the votive holder is the mechanism that causes the carousel, perched jauntily over the holder to spin and spin until the flame runs out. Such a simple, old-fashioned item and yet it creates magic through our wintering rooms. Likewise, I love the small, unfussy dome light he brought back that, once lit, gives the appearance of a miniature Swedish snowball lantern. For more fancifully spinning elements, incorporate mobiles, German Christmas pyramids (if you celebrate Christmas), or electric, lighted snow globes that cast glimmering shadows on walls from the blustering, glittering snow tumult inside.
As we approach the shortest day and longest night of the year, lighting candles and other luminaries is a symbolic way to push back against the darkness. I find comfort and a quiet pleasure in thinking about how, across centuries and religions, the world over, humans have celebrated light in the darkness as a symbol of hope and as a representation of the flame of the human spirit that goes on, even when things look their bleakest. In her article, “Season of Light,” (2003), author of a book on celebrations of light, Mary Bergin, quotes Unitarian minister Rev. Scott Gerard Prinster, who expounds, “In each of the major religions...hope is symbolized by the presence of the light that would not be extinguished.” Prinster adds, "In earlier times, the burning of lights was a great comfort at this time of year, when night comes so early, and the daylight is so precious. The yule log burned at the winter solstice was a celebration of the hope that the dwindling light would return, and the world would not be lost in endless night. In the major religions celebrated today in our communities, the power of this symbolism continues to shine on.”
I would add that not only do these beautiful illuminations minister to our minds and spirits that the dark will not endure forever, they can make the season of dark something of singular beauty in itself. There is comfort and contemplation to crave here, if we will open to it and embrace the lengthening nights, the crisper air. As the winter solstice nears, consider what you can do to make the dark and cold less conditions to be endured and instead cyclical phenomena to be happily anticipated and embraced. What sources of light and magic and fancy can you bring out of cupboards or boxes, or what luminaries can you make to mark the passing of the longest day of the year?