I’ve always had an affinity for cold, dark winter days. While my friends bemoan the plummeting temperatures and pop vitamin-D like candy, I watch the sun descend midafternoon with contemptable glee. I light a candle, put on the kettle. I don’t even like tea! I’m just that giddy.
Life hasn’t always been so joyful. Winters in southwest Ohio -where I grew up- often felt like a cruel joke. For several childhood Christmases, temperatures jumped past 70 degrees. I sweat right through my flannel reindeer pajamas. January warm fronts prompted my sister to catch a tan on the front lawn. I could have kicked her.
My disposition isn’t entirely unique. Despite long, dark winters, Danes (and many of their Scandinavian neighbors) are some of the happiest people on the planet. The reason is hygge. Hygge is loosely defined as “a feeling of being warm, safe, comforted, and sheltered.” It is both a verb and a noun, an action and a feeling or atmosphere. Hygge sits at the core of Danish culture. It describes, as one author puts it, a way of being that “introduces humanity and warmth.”
While we were out walking on a recent blustery November’s eve, my wife turned to me, shivering, and said: “I don’t understand how you love being cold!”
“Say what? I hate being cold.”
“Then how can you possibly love winter?”
The summer after graduating from college, I worked and lived on the coast of Maine. No matter how warm the day, when the sun sets on the coast, cold air from the ocean moves ashore.
I was walking home one such evening, rather chilly without a jacket. I passed a house; lights were on in the windows, and I stopped for a moment. A lamp sat on a coffee table beside a book and a pair of glasses. I could hear talking, amicable in tone. I could smell fresh bread. Shadows fluttered along the wall from the light. It looked so very inviting, as if the home itself saying to me: “Oh! Well, do come in.” I felt a longing for something that I couldn’t quite name. I couldn’t, at the time, speak Danish (still can’t).
One of the key components to hygge is contrast. It’s the idea that there can be “a sense of distance between us and the outside world.”
When it comes to God, faith, for me, has always been a struggle. It’s hard to articulate why or what exactly I refer to when I say “doubt.” I question God’s goodness. I question God’s power, realness, and nearness. I question that God even cares. About me. (And everything else.)
Questions may be healthy, helpful even. But they are isolating. I find nihilism more convincing than cheery testimony to God’s faithfulness. My faith life often feels like standing outside on the dark street, looking in through a window. And I forgot my jacket.
But then there’s hygge, the reminder that darkness- and doubt- itself is not reality, but a contrast to the warmth and goodness of the light. The cold I feel is easily thwarted by an invitation to step into cozy peace. The light shines in the darkness, John writes, but the darkness can’t outdo it.
That’s why I love dark and frigid days, why I’ll always love summer nights on the coast of Maine. Not because I enjoy frostbite or wish to spend a Dickensian night shivering on the street. Rather, there’s some innate part of humanity that is awakened by the possibility of warmth. To truly be warm, you must be cold (“I believe! Help my unbelief!”). The coziness of faith exists when doubt is embraced as real yet powerless in the face of light. It’s that awakening, that contrast, the melody of emotion and sensation when you step inside on a freezing night, smell fire, hear laughter, and remember- all over again- the feeling of hygge.
Platitudes can’t buffer my faith any more than a single match can turn the nighttime into day. But hygge reminds me that only a small cabin with a modest fire is needed, not just to survive winter, but to downright enjoy it. It overcomes doubt and turns blizzardy nights into hope. And isn’t it a beautiful thing to embrace the darkness, not with fear or dread, but joy?
But for hygge to happen, you need darkness and sunshine, warmth and the cold.
Maybe that’s why lighting a candle in the middle of the afternoon and smiling into a black window is so uplifting. It reminds me that, no matter how long I am out there, wandering in the darkness of doubt, that there will always be a warm and inviting place for me in here.
And flannel reindeer pajamas? Those are just a perk.