Protecting ourselves from worst of winter with ‘hygge’

Kathy Faris started working at Livsreise because she was interested in learning more about her own family history. She stayed on as a staff member because of everyone else’s stories.

Faris’ favorite piece in the heritage center is an old trunk that dates back to some of Stoughton’s earliest Norwegian settlers.

Protecting ourselves from worst of winter with ‘hygge’

“One hundred percent of their living went into the trunk that you see behind me here,” Faris said.

As Faris puts it, none of the things on display are just things.

“It tells a story. Everything we have here tells a story,” Faris said.

That story comes from Norwegian ancestors who immigrated to Wisconsin in the 19th century. They brought their love of skiing, their customs and, according to Livsreise Executive Director Marg Listug, their industrious character.

“The traditions are carried down, the work ethic is carried down. The community itself is very proud of the Norwegian tradition, and I like to think after they’ve lived here for a while, they embrace it, as well,” Listug said.

Protecting ourselves from worst of winter with ‘hygge’

Listug says winters here are more brutal than they are in Norway. While Wisconsin reminded some immigrants of home, Stoughton is now only about 20% Norwegian. Still, the traditions are strong.

“You just can’t help but feel a hug when you come in here, and I’ve had people tell me that,” Faris said.

Finding warmth and feelings of coziness is ingrained in Nete Schmidt. The Danish native has lived in Madison for the last 20 years, working as a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Scandinavian studies department.

Protecting ourselves from worst of winter with ‘hygge’

Schmidt remembers one of her first big snowstorms not for the snow totals, but for what happened afterward.

“I’m of the opinion that shoveling snow is really good for you. It’s great exercise. And it didn’t take very long here in Madison before we bought a snowblower, and I thought it was such a defeat because you have to go shovel that snow,” Schmidt said.

While a lot of things felt familiar, there were some cultural differences that quickly became clear. Schmidt said she never thought about how dreary and rainy Denmark’s winters were until her husband mentioned it.

“You can choose to go two ways. You can ignore the weather, or you can embrace the weather, and I think that in Denmark, I just chose to ignore the weather. What we do very much is, OK, light a lot of candles, stay inside, get into tribal mode,” Schmidt said.

That emphasis on gathering, warmth and physical activity is all part of the concept of hygge. The word is used to describe a feeling of coziness and togetherness with others, particularly in the winter months. While it’s become increasingly popular around the world, hygge originates in the Scandinavian region.

Schmidt said meals are also a big part of the reason she’s able to look forward to long winters instead of looking for ways to get the season over with. In Denmark, so-called Christmas lunches start in November. Schmidt described them as all-day affairs with multiple courses and drinks, all playing into the feeling of togetherness that hygge represents.

“That counting down and looking forward to this dark season and turning it into a bright light in your mind, in your head, that’s amazing. And I think that’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said since hygge is focused on being indoors and out of the elements, home is an important element. For her, lots of candles, a fireplace and cups of tea and hot cocoa bring feelings of warmth to an otherwise chilly existence.

Soft blankets and knitted socks help, but Schmidt said it’s more about the mindset and surrounding yourself with good people this time of year.

“Life is good. I’m in a good place, and I’m with people I love and care about,” Schmidt said.

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