Warm, knit blankets.
Softly steaming cup of tea, with the perfect drop of honey.
Trolls–like, the kind with decaying flesh stuck between broken, stained teeth.
Witches with ragged nails and dirt-clotted patches of skin-rot.
Ominous forest spiders and creeping centipedes.
When Americans learn a new cultural idea, it makes us feel sophisticated to imagine we’ve cracked the code to understanding a cultural psyche that’s otherwise foreign to us. We do this by appropriating surface stuff: home decor, fashion, themed parties. Snuggling in the warm during winter and calling it a Danish tradition. Oh, there’s good to this: realizing that there are some human endeavors (like staving off winter depression) that are earth-wide. It helps us feel connected to other people.
But we risk ignoring the rich complexities of other people when we reduce them to a single cultural tradition. Especially if we ignore the other cultural traditions that can’t be ripped apart from the one we single out.
Not to be too creepy, but for every perfectly staged photo of twinkling candlelight, wool sock-clad feet, and steaming cocoa that proclaims “hygge!” there is an unknowable, ominous creature lurking unseen out in the dark woods beyond the cold window pane. That’s uhygge.
It’s uhygge that makes me love good fantasy writing (and my own shady Viking ancestry, which bleeds out like spilled ink before my more respectable, rebellious English ancestry) so, so much. It’s uhygge that makes us examine those feelings of unease, those frightening monsters of the unknown. Trolls loom in the Danish imagination, spawned in the bitter cold, dark-winter despair and spun into childhood stories that have become indelible to Danish culture.
But don’t forget, uhygge is, indeed, balanced with hygge. There is power and comfort in a warm hearth and hearty food, and the bonds of friends and family. And when I get the winter blues, I need both uhygge and hygge to get me through: the discomfort of being outside in the cold and wet, the trees both too exposed without their leaves and still obscuring what might hide among them … the challenge of drafting a new novel or bidding on a freelancing gig. And yes, the reward of hot tea and fuzzy socks after I find, and slay, my trolls.