Getting Hygge With It


There is nothing even remotely Scandinavian about my person. I am a 4′ 11’’ native New Yorker Italian-American middle aged woman. The older I become, the more I resemble my ancient Sicilian aunts. My growing up experience in Queens and Northern New Jersey fit all the stereotypes—Catholic; large, affectionate extended family; Sunday pasta and meatball dinners; plastic on the furniture. I had a very cultured upbringing, but none of my memories are of being outside. My family was not outdoorsy at all. We had a swim club membership mostly to get us out of the house in the summer, and other than that, most of our gatherings involved a home, a church, a restaurant, or all three. And yet, in the second half century of my life, I am a person who has discovered the hygge mindset in the most hygge way possible: organically, naturally, with friendship and love at its center.

I moved to Ohio to attend college, and I stayed. I have lived in Ohio twice as long as I lived in the East, but roots that deep are hard to pull. It is because of Ohio that I learned how to be outside. I also fell in love with my then-boyfriend-now-husband who really, really likes to be outside. We came up in a community of aging hippies, environmental activists, new agers, organic farmers, commune dwellers, community organizers, artists of every genre, and we all loved nature. I was a bike commuter for many years. I hiked all over the country. I slept under stars with nothing but a worn cotton blanket beneath me. I skinny-dipped. Each outside adventure shed one more layer of the confines of my upbringing.

When my husband and I bought our first home, his main requests were outside ones: a southern facing window, a yard, and a functioning fireplace. We inherited a small but mighty cast iron woodstove from a friend making an upgrade. It is short and solid like us. It does not have a fancy glass window, but we can cover the open door with a grate to watch the flames. The creosote lined doors shut tight, and the back vents open to generate heat that can fill up the house. Our first home was a 1920’s foursquare with a chimney that went through the center. We could feel the heat coming through the walls when the stove was really cooking. That same woodstove is in our current mid-century modern split-level, as sturdy and reliable as ever. And nothing says hygge more than a woodstove.

There is an obvious primordial element in creating a winter woodpile; chopping wood and setting a stack by the door; minding the stove, adding logs, and stacking it at night. The hearth is the heart of the home, from Hestia to Little House on the Prairie to Pinterest (it is no surprise that the only fire to grace my childhood home was the Yule Log loop that played on Christmas morning). In yoga I learned about prana, the life force that breathes through all the universe. The woodstove is a beautiful source of prana, a living, breathing way of creating life force energy in the deepest, darkest moments of winter. The fire is an invitation to sit down, to watch the flames dance, to listen to the crackle, to smell the smoke and ash, to snuggle with a blanket and a book and a dog. It is our human need to hibernate, to simply breathe, that we most often forget. The woodstove brings the outside to the inside when we need it the most.

I have friends who went to Copenhagen during the holiday break, and they confirm that hygee is everywhere, especially in the winter months when there is so little daylight. People at bars and cafes sit around fires with actual blankets, sipping and chatting and marveling at the wonders of universal health care, a sharp contrast to our affairs here in the States. Even though Denmark is literally and figuratively an ocean away, embracing hygge is a way for me to remember to come back to myself and surrender to what I crave the most: quiet, comforting moments with my people in a home I helped build with love. And in my current state of frazzled COVID brain, with too much tech and too many distractions, I need this reminder more than ever. The woodstove is at the forefront of our living room, surrounded by my parents’ antiques and the artifacts of life that my family has curated over the years. It sits quietly most of the year, waiting to serve its purpose faithfully and reliably, an old friend calling us back to the home fires where we can rest, restore, and plan for our next outside adventure.

~ Danielle Polemeni ~