The Danes are generally warm, witty and welcoming. But they can also be cool and reserved. It depends where you meet them.
Danes have two reputations in the world, one at home and another abroad. Outside their homeland, Danes are known as warm, curious, friendly, funny and charming. In their modest way, Danish travelers bring on laughs and a sense of pure enjoyment for life.
They try not to act too offended when, outside Europe people ask: “Is Denmark the capital of Sweden?” or “What language do you speak- Dutch?”
A short, firm geography lesson is given on the spot, but modesty usually prevents the Dane from pointing out that Denmark is the oldest monarchy in the world, dating from AD 935.
At home, Danes are seen by foreign visitors as distant, sombre, even cold. They keep to themselves. Danes blame this image on the wet, cool climate. “Not much of our social life happens on the pavements or out in front of the home,” says Kjær Nielsen, a teacher. “We spend much of our time indoors with our families and friends.”
Inside this thin barrier of social contact, Denmark is one of the warmest countries in the world. People are genuine. They speak their minds. They thrive on making life cozy, relaxing and enjoyable – from festive occasions to mundane coffee breaks.
This is what Danish hygge is all about. Hygge (pronounced whoo-guh) stands for any and every sense of coziness, and it is found everywhere in Denmark. A good meal has hygge, a house can have hygge, a story, a walk in the woods, a meeting at a café, even a person can have hygge.
Parties for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and the like have hygge at their core. Tables are decorated with flowers and candles and creatively folded napkins. A three course meal is usually interspersed with songs and speeches, which end in a collective “Hurrah!” Wine flows freely. As the Danish poet and troubadour Benny Andersen wrote in a song well known among Danes: “One must keep the mood wet. I’m drink and I’m feeling great.”
Six hours into such a celebration and filled with spirits, a partygoer has a chance to get up from the table, dance a bit, then fetch some coffee and cookies and sit down again. Later, the host serves the final course, called “get out food”, and guests gradually take the hint.
Hygge was born, no doubt, indoors during the grey winter months. From November to February, Danes go to work in darkness and return home in darkness. Warm candlelight fills flats, homes and offices in natural defense. During Jul (Christmas), live candles decorate Christmas trees indoors, around which families join hands and sing carols.
Local ferries light up the black water with strings of white lights. On New Year’s Eve, the Queen gives her annual talk to the nation on television, and fireworks spark and pop, lighting up the midnight sky.
A whiff of spring
By February winter seems to drag on forever. In his essay, Oh! To the Danish, the author Klaus Rifbjerg writes of this time: “Sure, it can be grim, and now and then we might want to turn our collar up and jump in the river. But then the light suddenly changes and there’s a melody in the air, a whiff of spring to come, the smell of the sea and a blackbird singing on a rooftop.”
Fields of fluorescent yellow winter rape blossom in May, and the days grow longer, In spring and summer, urban Danes cycle out to their garden houses on the edge of town, and rural Danes collect dead braches and greenery into huge piles on the beaches and in the countryside.
On the evening of 23 June, Midsummer’s Eve, those piles of wood are topped with an effigy of witch and set on fire to drive bad spirits from the land. In July, nearly the whole country goes on holiday for three weeks. Barbecues are lit and bathing suits donned.
By late summer, farmer’s tractors haul grain and hay, holding ip traffic. Towns hold harvest festivals, children start school and families hunt for mushrooms and berries in the forests. People complain about the diminishing light and increasing rain, and soon temperatures can drop as low the sea freezes solid.
So the Danes light a candle, make some hygge with hot cooca and buns, and look forward to Jul again. A sense of Danish togetherness can be felt in society as well, starting with the generous welfare system. Social benefits are high, workers’ unions are strong, and the cooperative spirit prevails. Only four out of 100 Danes do not belong to an association.
“We have a joke that if two Danes sit together for five minutes, they start an association,” says Kjær Nielsen.
Equality for all
Denmark is an egalitarian country with a high standard of living where, as the Danes themselves say, “Few have too much and fewer has too little.” The welfare system gives everyone the same opportunities; free health service, education, support for the elderly and handicapped, unemployment benefits, pensions and more. The system carries a price; goods and services are taxed at 25 percent, and 50-70 percent of income is taxed.
Welfare equality carries through to social mores. Everyone is on first-name terms, the formal address, De, being reserved mainly for the Queen. Dress is casual and a tie in the workplace is rare.
More than 100 dialects are spoken in Denmark. Come vary greatly. People in south Jutland are hardly understood by the residents of Copenhagen.
But this idyllic-sounding vision of coziness and cooperation does have its darker side. During the 1980s, a wave of refugees shook up the homogeneity of this little Scandinavian country – threatening, perhaps, that all-important feeling of hygge. Denmark was unprepared, and immigration became a huge and emotive domestic issue – and today more than ever.
Being a Dane today therefore involves a great deal of soul-searching on the subjects of tolerance, integration and immigration. The country came under intense criticism in 2005, after the newspaper Jylland-Posten published cartoons that caused offence across the Islamic world. Danes were polarized. Some turned to the far-right, anti-immigration Danish People’s Party to represent their hardening attitudes while others cleaved to their belief in an egalitarian society for all.
The 2008 economic crisis and a consequent spike in unemployment rates did not help the tense immigration question, but the country rolled with the punches, and in 2011 it had one of the strongest economies in Europe.
The government, however, is still looking around for ways to ease the financial burden. Danes are justly proud of their welfare safety net, and are still happy to pay high taxes to support it, but the system’s costs and benefits are another of the country’s major preoccupations. In June 2010, the government halved the country’s four-year unemployment benefits period to claw back some cash. Last month the government voted in favor of a law, forcing asylum-seekers to hand over any valuables to help cover their housing and food costs while their cases are being processed. This way it hopes to diminish Denmark’s appeal to migrants.
The system is still very supportive of women, though. Maternity and paternity leave is generous, the family is all-important in Denmark, and Danish men play a large part in raising their children.
The Welcoming Danes, written by Tor Kjolberg