Polar vortex? What Scandinavians teach us about embracing cold weather

Polar vortex: When it comes to getting through another winter, certain folks in northern Europe have found ways to cope.

Joachim Adrian, Polfoto/AP
A woman rides a bike on her way to work in heavy snow in the center of Copenhagen, Denmark, Dec. 5, 2012.

Winter has come, but rather than recoiling from the Polar Vortex as if it were something out of a "Game of Thrones" episode, we could just give it a big Scandinavian hygge.

In Danish, the word hygge (pronounced "hyOOguh") is more about the social process that goes into seeing winter as a time to be cozy, snuggly, and entrenched in the warmth that comes with cold, rather than fighting the dark days.

Weather reports herald the Polar Vortex, a blast of cold air sweeping over the central and eastern United States, that is expected to linger through January 17.

Snow is falling in Norfolk, Va., and on North Carolina's Outer Banks, where, on Christmas Day, residents had seen temperatures approaching 80 degrees.

The result is a flurry of emotions ranging from angst to elation. Those hoping that southern real estate means no snow are in for disappointment.

“The word for what you need in the cold and dark of winter is definitely Hygge and while it exists in Norwegian, the Danish seem to have a lock on it,” says Frank Hugus, professor of German and Scandinavian studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, in an interview. “You’re talking to someone who has lived in New England for more than 40 years so to me, Danish winters are not so bad.”

Prof. Hugus speaks Danish and has spent a good deal of time studying in Denmark where he says that winter doldrums fail to take hold because of “a sense of wellbeing and of being at one with your environment both inside and outside.”

According to the World Happiness Report compiled by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), the world's five happiest nations are Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Canada. The US was ranked 15th.

The one thing the happiest of the happy have in common is the warm welcome they give cold weather.

Hugus says that Scandinavians, and Danes in particular, do a lot of socializing in the winter, “They understand that the dark time of year the sun will come up around nine o’clock and go down around 2:30. And they understand that this is part of the world.”

It is a Danish proverb that advises Bedre at tænde et lys, end at forbande mørket, which translates to "Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

Although a Swedish proverb is a bit more practical about winter, reminding us that Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder or, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”

He adds that with that socializing comes food and drink that adds a “cozy dimension” to the winter to help chase the doldrums.

“If I were in Virginia or let alone Florida or Georgia, this [weather] would be just terrible,” he says. “I think there’s a big difference between how we in New England and Denmark deal with winter.”

However, Hugus says it’s not something we can quickly alter culturally with a single cold snap. “You have to adjust yourself physically and mentally to the fact that it’s going to be cold.”

“You don’t let it stop you, from going out to cultural events like concerts or being with friends just because it’s cold,” he adds.

Also, he says, “I think that also there is a base level of wellbeing there that comes from, as [Vermont Sen.] Bernie Sanders has been want to say, the fact that the Danish take care of one another. They are a social democratic country and they and other Scandinavian countries really put the well in welfare.”

In addition to more hearty food and socializing, humor is a key that Americans might be able to pocket.

“I remember once I took a flight from Copenhagen to the island of Bornholm on a small plane. We took off in a raging blizzard. We landed in a raging blizzard,” he says. “The flight attendant announced ‘We’ve landed in Bornholm…. I think.’ Because you really couldn’t see a thing out the windows. There’s humor. The Danes have a way of putting a sympathetic, wry humor to things. They might say, ‘So, this is winter and we just hope it works out.’”

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