Hygge is one of those words that’s hard to translate. It’s more than a word – it’s an idea embedded in Danish culture. It roughly translates to ‘cosiness’, but it’s much more than this. In fact, ‘hygge’ has its roots in the old Nordic word for ‘well-being’. It’s something you can do with friends – meeting over a coffee, a meal or a beer – or alone, perhaps with a good book or a warm bath.
If language is like a window into a culture, you can see how hygge might help Danes get through the cold, dark winters we have up here in the north of Europe. Well, this whole year has been difficult for so many of us in Denmark and around the world. It has been more important than ever to find ways to look after the well-being of yourself and others while keeping social distance or in a full lockdown.
A history of ‘community spirit’
Since March 2020, Danes have been hearing another word a lot: ‘Samfundssind’. Like hygge, it’s another Danish idea that’s difficult to translate. But it means something like “community spirit”. “There is a strong tradition of community spirit in Denmark,” Eva Skafte Jensen, senior researcher at the Danish Language Council, explains for the BBC. “In the 19th Century, this was seen in the way people in the countryside established ‘andelsbevægelsen’ (co-operatives) focused on common goals. Dairy farmers would team up to finance jointly owned dairies [and] farmers and other country people would form consumer co-ops, thus circumventing the monopoly of private merchants of groceries… This idea was also brought into the workers’ movements where it helped to build strong unions.”
And the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, appealed directly to the Danes’ sense of samfundssind as the country went into lockdown in early 2020. “We have to stand together by keeping our distance,” she said at a press conference in March. “We need community spirit. We need help. I would like to thank… all who have so far shown that this is exactly what we have in Denmark – samfundssind.”
How Danes have shown their samfundssind
Like hygge, there are many ways to show samfundssind. And at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, many companies and cultural institutions looked for ways to help out. The Lego factory began manufacturing visors for healthcare workers. Theme park Tivoli Gardens and Copenhagen Zoo turned themselves into temporary kindergartens to help home-bound workers with childcare. SAS transported more than 40 million protective masks for Scandinavian healthcare workers. And a group of Michelin star chefs started collecting food donations from restaurants and hotels and cooking for homeless shelters around Copenhagen.
These are just a few examples that have made the news. But you could also find Danes sharing acts of kindness and solidarity online using samfundssind as a social media hashtag. And to many Danes, following the government’s social distancing guidelines was an everyday but no less important act of samfundssind. Now, as winter draws in and coronavirus cases start to rise again, both samfundssind and hygge will surely stay top of Danes’ minds as we enter 2021.