Like all children since the beginning of time, my kids roll their eyes when I tell them that back in my day, I walked 2 miles to school in hip-deep snow, uphill both ways. But since I grew up in the Upper Peninsula — Sault Ste. Marie, to be exact — only the last bit is a fabrication. Our school district’s superintendent, a stoic Finn, hardly ever called school off for weather. So, in the morning, my brother and I would bundle up in thick socks, long johns, snowsuits, scarves, mittens (with an extra pair tucked in our pockets, just in case), warm stocking hats or ski masks, and moon boots (my mother lined ours with bread bags for extra protection).
Off we’d trot to school, often with blinding snow whipping at our faces, sometimes making a path through a foot or more of fresh snowfall. And for many months at a time, it was nearly always cold: bitter cold, the kind of cold that as a now-fully adapted downstater, makes me grumpy and depressed and sometimes claim I hate my life four months of the year on the few days I actually experience it this far south.
Funny, though, how in those days I never hated the winter. It was just part of life, something you accepted for months on end. Because there was no escape, folks didn’t really try to avoid reality or stay inside when it was bitter. They didn’t get disappointed when they poked their heads outside in the morning and realized: Man, it’s cold. Of course, it was cold! It was always cold, so we rarely experienced the disappointment that comes when reality doesn’t match expectations. Instead of staying inside complaining, we bundled up and got on with our lives.
There’s a kind of contentment in accepting a harsh climate, and it’s one of the things I think best sums up the Danish concept of hygge. Hygge can be loosely translated to mean a coziness or contentment and often includes warm touches like candles and comfort food, but it’s more than that. Hygge is the idea of being happy with what you have and finding the joy in simple things.
Sometimes, that’s the harsh beauty of the sun glinting off a fresh snowbank on a minus 20-degree morning or the cozy satisfaction of a warm pair of mittens.
When I think back to my childhood, the hygge-est moment I remember was the feeling of lying in a snowbank, bundled against the elements in the purple twilight of a January evening, knowing my mother would soon call me in for dinner. Coziness even in cold, the love of family, comfort in food: all essential ingredients for a hygge life.
With several bestselling books dedicated to the idea now available, hygge is having a moment — just when we’ve needed it most (polar vortex, anyone?). But at the risk of overromanticizing my childhood, I know my grownup self has been somewhat spoiled by occasional 70-degree days in February and made discontented by a teasing spring that goes on for months but often fails to deliver on my overinflated hopes.
When I think about all the days I’ve left my gloves and hat at home because it’s almost warm enough to go without, I laugh at myself: 10-year-old me would have had the good sense to wear appropriate clothes so I’d be able to enjoy the beauty of a winter’s day.
As we enter another period of short days, long nights and ice-cold steering wheels, I ask myself: How can I make this winter a little more hygge? Certainly, the Danes don’t have a lock on miserable conditions, nor should they have to instruct us how to embrace the little beauties of life in the midst of a long, cold spell. So, here’s my own recipe for hygge — what I’m going to call Michigan hygge.
Dress for the weather. There’s no excuse for frozen fingers and toes when all I’m doing is driving across town. Warm gloves, warm boots, a warm coat, even snow pants — what do I care for fashion when I could have comfort?
Accept reality. I believe in the saying that “happiness is when expectations match outcomes,” and no time is that truer than winter in Michigan. This probably will not be the year that spring comes in February or that it’s 60-plus degrees and sunny by March 1, so why be grumpy and disappointed when the weather does what it’s always done? The less time we spend fixating on summer-related magical thinking, the more opportunity we have to enjoy the real magic of winter.
Get outside. There is so much to do during Michigan’s gorgeous frozen months. Consider: the meditative calm of ice skating or snowshoeing, the thrill of snowboarding or downhill skiing. I’ve found the more I pack my winter months with outdoor activities, the happier I am. Snow is still water, after all, just in another state.
Hibernate mindfully. One of the nicest pleasures of winter is being bundled up inside while a squall rages just outside our front door. But the cozy factor diminishes considerably when we stress out over the news or grumpily covet tropical vacation photos on our social media feeds.
Keep the water in view. The boat may be in storage and the shoreline is iced over as far as the eye can see, but the lakes and rivers that keep us enamored in summer go on being beautiful all winter long. From the powerful crashing waves on a chilly November day to the spectacular shoreline ice formations in January, there’s unique beauty to be found in a frozen river or lake, and chances are, you’ll be one of the lucky few to witness it. ≈
By Meagan Francis – Meagan Francis grew up in the U.P. where she learned how to dress for the cold. Today, she lives with her family in St. Joseph and makes occasional forays Up North.
*Photography courtesy istock