Felicity Long
Felicity Long

If I were to tell you that I just got back from a week in Copenhagen, your response might be, "Copenhagen in November? Why?"

Yes, the city is fairy-tale beautiful, but Denmark off-season certainly doesn't sell itself. There are lovely Christmas markets, to be sure, but several other Northern European countries, such as Germany and France, also have that tradition along with the added allure of skiing. And no, in case you weren't sure, you can't Alpine ski in Denmark.

So why choose that destination in that season?

My one-word answer? Hygge.

For the record, the word is pronounced like "HYOO-guh," but even if your pronunciation is off, everyone you meet will know what you mean.

Defining it in English is probably even trickier than getting the pronunciation right, although we spent hours conversing with locals trying.

Type the word into Google Translate and it comes up with "fun," but people we met rejected this as far too simplistic. "Cozy" was another frequent suggestion, along with "friendship," "snuggling by the fire or candlelight" and "well-being."

And while the winter holidays are especially overflowing with the hygge spirit, everyone was quick to assure us that hygge can also happen in summer, and even when you're alone.

In short, it's a feeling.

"Some definitions of hygge come up simply as 'hygge,'" said Henrik Thierlein, international press officer for Wonderful Copenhagen, who spent an afternoon showing us around the Old Town section of the city in all its winter holiday glory. You can't explain it, he told us; you have to experience it.

And experience it we did, over coffee and cake in Conditori La Glace, Denmark's oldest confectionary; over mulled wine, known locally as glog, at Nimb Brasserie; over heart-shaped honey cakes decorated with chocolate in Tivoli Gardens; and at the Royal Copenhagen flagship store, where we gawked at the lavishly decorated Christmas tables, each imagined by a fashion designer.

We also experienced hygge just walking around the city, which sparkles with so many lights, chandeliers, mirrors and candles in winter that it's like being in the center of a snow globe. Even locals stop to snap pictures of the five-star Hotel d'Angleterre where we stayed, its exterior transformed with lavish holiday decorations. The hotel's front door was flanked by massive toy wooden soldiers, and the doormen were outfitted in identical garb.

Across the street is the Kongens Nytorv Christmas market, with clusters of pop-up cottages selling food and gifts and a giant statue of Santa in his sleigh heralding the season at the entrance.

At one point, I was walking under a canopy of holiday lights when a flurry of very realistic-looking snow drifted down onto our upturned faces, our hair and eyelashes. Apparently, since snow made the scene prettier and Mother Nature didn't cooperate that day, the Danes simply created their own.

In short, Copenhagen is not a city that pulls in its sidewalks in winter and waits for the warm-weather to return. Instead, locals celebrate the season, adorn the city in a blaze of light to fend off the darkness and enjoy its streets, shops, cafes and eateries as if they didn't have a care in the world.

If all this seems a little too perfect to be real, it doesn't feel that way. After all, Denmark was named the happiest country in the world this year, according to the World Happiness Report, which considers a number of factors including economic security and governmental stability (the U.S., by the way, came in 13th).  My impression was that the concept of hygge both reflects that happiness and reinforces it from one generation to the next.

And while hygge still may be relatively unknown term this side of the Atlantic, I suspect it won't be for long. Consider the fact that the word was a contender for 2016's Oxford Dictionary international word of the year by both its U.S. and U.K. publishers.

The winner was "post-truth," by the way. But that's a different story.


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