Winter in North Dakota does bring a degree of hardship. Extreme temperatures, wind-chill, and excessive snow can be brutal. The layoffs so many seasonal workers face bring challenges as well. That being said, many of us still find charm in wintertime. The weather and the holidays alike force us to slow down, huddle in our warm homes, and take a little space from work, school, and hectic extra-curricular activities. The holidays represent one of the most spiritually significant times of the year for so many, and we renew our bonds with loved ones through rituals and traditions of the season.
When I think of winter in North Dakota, I think of the Danish and Norwegian concept of “hygge” (pronounced hue-guh). Hygge roughly translates as “coziness,” although there really is no one-word equivalent of hygge in English. Nevertheless, the growing interest in hygge has led to the word’s entry into English dictionaries. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines hygge as including “feeling warm, comfortable, and safe” and that such feelings can come from “doing simple things such as lighting candles, baking, or spending time at home with your family.” Our winters rival those of Northern Europe, so why wouldn’t our art of hygge rival theirs as well?
I asked some members of our community what hygge meant to them. Dina Butcher of North Dakotans for Public Integrity told me that, for her, hygge is sitting on her sofa – while her dog sits on her – with “feet up in front of the lit fireplace with a good read, hot chocolate or a brandy.” Bismarck City Commissioner Nancy Guy also recalls fireplaces as a significant source of hygge. Having grown up while her father Bill Guy served as governor, Nancy fondly recalls toasting marshmallows in the governor’s residence. Fireplaces have provided a key source of hygge in most of her homes ever since.
KFYR meteorologist Kevin Lawrence told me that family and togetherness are at the heart of his holiday hygge. Board games and other cozy activities with his wife and kids leave lasting memories that he cherishes year-round. And like Nancy and Dina, he mentioned his fireplace as a source of hygge too – especially on snowy nights.
Liliana Norby of the THEO Art School also knows hygge well. Aaron Norby, her Norwegian-American husband, naturally has familiarity with the Scandinavian concept. Meanwhile, Liliana’s Spanish-Basque background and her upbringing across multiple continents have contributed to a hygge experience all her own. Liliana described to me "butterflies in your stomach" that emerge as the winter holidays approach. Her hygge is channeled into cooking and feeding others during the season. She and her loved ones “hygge-up” by anticipating each holiday, preparing food, and eating together.
As strange as this might sound, I feel a sort of hygge during moments I spend outside when the wind is minimal, but the temperature is very cold. There is an otherworldly stillness when absolutely everything is frozen. It verges on surreal for me, but in a beautiful, comforting, and enlightening way. In these moments, I am reminded of the cyclical nature of our seasons and year, and of the darkness we live through to reach the light and rebirth on the other side. Part of the comfort surely comes from the fact that at any time I can opt to retreat from the cold that I choose to sit with in that moment. When I finally opt to retreat, I warm my body and spirit in my Mandan home.