Secrets of Denmark’s Spiritual Foundation Revealed on Visit to Its Northern Tip
I got hygge in Skagen. Admittedly, my resistance was low. I was vulnerable, susceptible to it. I was jet-lagged and traveling alone, carrying the baggage of flying solo on a trip I had planned to make with my mother, who had subsequently been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was unable to travel. After an all-consuming 25-year career, I was just easing into a new and foreign lifestyle of semi-retirement—that had commenced just days before the economy and stock market plummeted. Yes, I was a set-up to be infected with hygge. And, based on my experience, I hope you catch it too.
I had read about the Danish cultural phenomenon of hygge (pronounced “hue-ga”) before arriving in the country, and came into contact with it almost immediately after landing at Aaolborg airport. Upon first hearing the word hygge uttered, its guttural pronunciation was foreign to my ears, and my instinct was to issue a “Gesundheit!”
I had splurged on a driver to transport me from Aaolborg to Skagen, the northernmost point of the country. Disembarking from the 30-minute flight from Copenhagen to Aalborg airport in North Jutland, I saw a wiry gent with white hair holding a sign with my name. Kaj (pronounced “Ki”) proved an able ambassador, despite, or maybe because of, the initial rocky start to our journey to Skagen, about 50 miles north.
Kaj, 75, was hard of hearing, and clearly flustered as to how to diplomatically draw the boundary for me between tour guide and driver. So he was actually relieved to find someone riding shotgun with him who had done her homework and had a host of specific sights lined up to see on the 90-minute drive.
However, as we amiably shouted at each other while navigating these waters, Kaj got off course. His hands shaking, he pulled over to re-program the disembodied female voice emanating from his GPS, who sounded tense even to ears that couldn’t comprehend Danish.
“She hates me,” he moaned. “God hates me.”
Boy, I knew just the feeling and, much to both our surprise, I burst out in a long, hearty gale of hilarity, tears eventually streaming down my cheeks.
And then, we smiled at each other.
In planning my trip and researching Denmark, I had stumbled across the Danish word hygge, a concept described in part as the “spiritual foundation of Denmark.” A spark was ignited; I now had my raison d’etre for the trip. At that point in my life, I was unable to conceive of undertaking anything, even a vacation, without some type of agenda. I was determined that as I traversed the country, I would through osmosis acquire hygge.
Ironically, my first brush with hygge was the unexpected realization that I was not the only one who regularly thought God was out to get me, often based on the flimsiest skirmish with adversity. The depth of Kaj’s despairing and woeful reaction to the backtalk from his GPS struck a major chord with me.
Once back on the road, I asked him about hygge, and what it meant to him. He screwed up his face, thinking intently, eager to help me understand.
“Well…it’s the family, around the table, having wonderful conversation. With a fire in the fireplace. And candles lit, lots of candles.”
“I see…so warmth is important in hygge?” I asked.
“Noooo…” Kaj replied. “A snowball fight can be hygge.”
Our first stop was Saeby or “sea town,” a picturesque village that inspired a number of Danish writers, including Henrik Ibsen. His play “The Lady from the Sea” is commemorated here with an impressive statue—its puts to shame Copenhagen’s diminutive “Little Mermaid.” A series of sky blue tug boats were moored along the small port, amid sleek white sailboats and chunky houseboats festooned with floating gardens of geraniums and marigolds.
Saeby is set amid verdant fields and separated from the sandy shoreline by a narrow canal, lined with brightly-colored boats in shades of green, blue and red. Blonde, sunburned families sat at picnic tables outside small takeout eateries, licking ice cream cones. Standing sentinel over this riot of color was the stark white tower of Saeby Klosterkirke, a former Carmelite monastery, the lines of its roof ascending like steps to the tip of its peak, in iconic Scandinavian architectural style.
I wandered around with a big goofy grin on my face, madly snapping photographs of all the details of daily life in this happy hamlet—kerchiefs pinned to a clothesline and flapping in the breeze, a topiary in the shape of a teddy bear on someone’s front steps, a mother duck leading a parade of her offspring down a cattail-lined canal. It all seemed so wholesome, relaxed and tranquil—the kind of existence I yearned for, exuding what I imagined to be hygge.
Later, back on the road to Skagen, Kaj took me by surprise by bursting into song, serenading me at 150 kilometers per hour in a beautiful tenor with a snippet of Danny Kaye’s 1948 song “Wonderful Copenhagen.” (“I sailed up the Skagerrak, and sailed down the Kattegat.”) My initial shock turned into one of unexpected recognition and I felt a wave of nostalgia. My father dead for 23 years, had been an aloof and reserved man, with the uncharacteristic but endearing trait of regularly bursting into song. Like Kaj, he would sing only a refrain, and then nonchalantly resume whatever it was he had been in the midst of doing. It had been a long time since I had heard this brand of soundtrack.
Kaj also regaled me with bit of Danish lore. He told me of the legend of Thundershield, a vice admiral in the Danish navy in the 1700s, who Kaj called a “devil may care,” with obvious admiration. While in a heated battle with the British in the Great Northern War, Thundershield’s ship ran out of ammunition. He signaled this to his opponent, adding “May I borrow some of yours?” The English commander was so amused that, while he declined to provide his enemy with gunpowder, he did invite him over for a drink, and, thus ended the battle. Fact or fiction, I loved the story and found it emblematic of the dry, deadpan humor of the Danes.
Kaj also humored me with several pit stops so that I could take photographs of the stunning scenery. Over the next 20 miles I saw images so vivid and beautiful it seemed as if they were conjured up on my command—a massive field of lavender stretching out to the horizon, with a simple, stark white cottage in its midst; three compact and stocky Icelandic ponies, in a field of emerald green, heads tilted at the same angle, huge liquid eyes looking directly at me; a charming mill house on the banks of a stream, the wooden slats of its paddle wheel slapping the water. Kaj pointed out the salmon ladder aside the mill’s small waterfall, designed to help the fish home on their annual migration to spawn. Each of these scenes spoke to me of contentment, fulfilled some longing.
Rabjerg Mile: Denmark’s Fast-Moving Sahara
With directions from one of the many cyclists cruising the Danish countryside, we arrived at the first attraction on my checklist, Rabjerg Mile—a huge expanse of undulating sand dunes 12 stories high and about a square kilometer. Far from practically being under glass as the case might be in the U.S., Northern Denmark’s answer to the Sahara is easily accessible and open to the curious to wade in.
We turned into the virtually empty parking lot, steps from the bottom of the hills. Kaj heralded our excursion by launching into Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walking”, and I joined in at “Start walking boots!” We laughed together as we battled the strong wind that had been slowly moving this patch of earth for the past 700-plus years.
Each step required exaggerated exertion as our feet sunk deep in the sand and a fierce air current moved in from the water like a freight train. I struggled to bend over to take my shoes off and Kaj lent me his shoulder, insisting he carry my sneakers.
As I spastically fought the earth and air, my hair flying wildly about me in all directions, I would catch glimpses of Kaj ahead of me, his tie flapping in the strong breeze, suit jacket in one hand and my shoes in the other. The absurdity of the situation happily overwhelmed me and I doubled over in laughter, the wind catching and carrying away my saliva. Enthralled with the moment, my ongoing existential angst was seemingly snatched away by the warm, whipping wind.
It was an exhilarating climb to the top of the huge pile of sand and as we caught our breath, Kaj pointed for me to look back at the path of our ascent. The long trail of our footsteps was already being erased by the billowing gusts. I was jolted by the memory of the “Footsteps” parable that had adorned the mass cards at my brother’s funeral many years earlier.
The plastic memorial placards had told the story of a man’s dream that he was walking along the beach with God. As he looked up at the sky, he saw all the scenes of his life flash by along with two sets of footprints: one set for himself and another for God. At the most difficult times in his life, he saw only one set of footprints. This troubled the man, so he said to God: "I see that during the most painful times there is only one set of footprints. Why did you leave me when I needed you the most?" God replied "I love you and would never leave. It was during those times when you suffered the most that I carried you."
I remembered reading the words and wishing I believed them. Now, I turned my eyes from the steep embankment of shifting sands to smile at Kaj, feeling an odd but not unpleasant sensation as I looked into his warm blue eyes. He gently put his hands on my shoulder and said “That was the hard part! This will be fun!”
And with that, he began careening down the side of the Rabjerg Mile, taking one huge leap after another. I hesitated only briefly before jumping myself. Because of the dune’s soft surface I had no fear of falling and didn’t fight gravity, allowing myself the freedom of momentum. The spills I took were met with a soft landing and laughter. Back at the car, I shook off the sand with a big smile on my face, feeling lighter than I had in a long time.
The projection of land known as the “Skaw” first formed during the Ice Age, as melting glaciers elevated the sea bottom around north Denmark. The dunes on the west coast of this promontory were initially covered with vegetation, but the effects of the “Little Ice Age” of the 1500s, combined with over-grazing by livestock, stripped the dunes of the binding plant life that anchored them in place.
Thus began a massive migration by the dunes that covered 1,000 meters between the 1300s, when the area was first settled, and the late 1700s. While other sandy areas of the Skaw have been planted since the 1830s to prevent such drifting, the Rabjerg Mile is allowed to go where the breeze takes it. It is heading ever-eastward toward the Baltic Sea at an annual rate of 15 – 20 meters.
I found awe-inspiring the idea that Scandinavia’s answer to the Sahara was being blown away over huge distances, a grain at a time. I loved the idea of a magnificent, invisible, liberating force lifting and transporting the tiniest of particles to a better place, and, in the process, effecting change on a grand scale. I could think of nothing better than the sensation of being carried away by a divine breeze.
A short ride away was Skagen, where Kaj deposited me after we confirmed plans to meet at the end of the next day for my return to the airport. I took my pick of the myriad seafood restaurants housed in the red former fish warehouses rimming the harbor. After a delicious lunch, I left Skagen’s waterfront behind to make my way to the mysterious site that had first inspired my interest in coming to Denmark.
Soon enough, I was bouncing along in a taxi to Tilsandede Kirke, or “the buried church,” located three miles away, in the nature reserve of Skagen Klitplantage. In the 1790s, the church was all but swallowed by the great sand drift that created Rabjerg Mile. Because of climate conditions in the late 18th century, the rate at which the sand moved accelerated during this era to 50 meters annually. The parishioners eventually gave up digging themselves in and out of worshipping here and now only the tower remains as a place of pilgrimage for tourists.
I asked my young cab driver Thomas about and what is hygge and he seemed flummoxed. “It’s hard to explain in any one way. It means many things.”
I pressed him to try and he offered, “Copenhagen is a hygge city. People are more relaxed and casual, even with strangers, much more than you would find in capital cities elsewhere.”
That rang true but I still wanted more details.
“Baking at Christmas is hygge. Christmas is very hygge,” he declared quite emphatically.
Thomas offered to turn the meter off while I followed the sandy path to the church, saying he’d take a bit of a stroll himself, “keeping you in eyesight of course.” I was charmed by his courtesy in this safe and peaceful place.
Months earlier I had stumbled across photographs of its white tower protruding from a rolling hill and was struck by a profound desire to see the strange sight in person. The image was starkly symbolic of the state of my faith at that time—flattened and overpowered by a relentless, unpredictable force that seemed indomitable, inscrutable and indiscriminate.
Now, my anticipation mounted as I walked through a wild landscape of pale sea grass, swathes of heather in pinkish and sienna hues and gnarled fir trees with branches contorted by the wind. Mounting a small slope, I saw the spare lines of the solitary edifice rising from dunes and stood still there for several minutes, breathing in the salty sea air and fragrant aroma of pine, absorbing the sight of a half-buried faith.
Feeling content in this serene and mysterious place, I photographed the white-washed tower protruding from a rolling hill, the lines of its roof ascending like steps to its peak. The structure almost seemed to radiate in the in the extended “magic hour” of one of Denmark’s long summer days.
My fascination with the area’s ambiance was only heightened as I learned more about the history of the church, officially named Ste. Laurentius, and the neighboring community.
Ste. Laurentius was once one of the largest churches in Northern Europe. The first recorded reference to it was in a priest’s papers in 1387, when he wrote of 20 kilometers of expensive cloth being brought to it for safekeeping after being salvaged from a ship stranded off Skagen’s west coast. Salvage and life-saving operations were long part of the everyday fabric of life in Skagen. From 1860 – 1889, 506 ships ran aground on the sands off this tip of Denmark.
In the 1850s, Hans Christian Anderson described the town: “Ship after wrecked ship lay side by side: we drove through the corpse of a large three-master schooner…past the half-buried spire of St. Laurentius church to Skagen’s town…I saw a pig in a little potato patch, tethered to a galleon head of “Hope.”
The Skagen Local History Museum displays personal accounts of numerous rescue operations, which make clear any potential gain from salvage efforts came at an incredibly high cost. The December 27, 1862 rescue attempt of the stranded Swedish ship “Daphne” left eight Skagen widows and 25 fatherless children.
Michael Ax, director of Skagen Local History Museum, observed: “I am sure that a ship in trouble would be met with mixed feelings by the citizens in Skagen. They were much aware that fellow humans were in deep distress and that they themselves had to put their lives at stake to save the sailors. But on the other hand, they were also very much aware that a new wreck meant a possible good income, or at least a chance to get hold of some luxury goods like cloth, ceramics, building material and so on.”
The heroic fishermen were a frequent subject of the artists’ colony that took root in the area’s sandy soil during painting’s Golden Age in the mid-late 1800s. With the advent of en pleun air and the first broad brush strokes of Impressionism, painters such as Holger Drachmann and Michael Ancher were drawn to this “Land of Light,” as Northern Denmark is known, to capture its luminous essence for posterity.
My next visit was to the Skagen Museum, where I took in its centennial exhibit featuring 582 paintings hung salon style, from floor to ceiling, as was done in the day of the Skagen painters. Dating from 1847-1927, it was an impressive body of work that depicted the French Naturalism style the colony’s founders had studied, and taught.
I was captivated by Michael Ancher’s 1896 “The Drowned Fisherman,” a painting that depicts the slicker-clad deceased laid out on a cottage table, surrounded by his wife and fellow fishermen, old and teen-aged. Each mourner has a somber but very distinctive expression; I felt as though I could read each one’s personal thoughts about the loss.
I learned the painting was inspired by the death of Lars Kruse, a favorite model of the area artists. Kruse was master of the Skagen Lifeboat for 31 years, during which 180 people were rescued at sea. Three days after his part in the 1894 rescue of the “Gesiene,” Kruse drowned in his own boat while fishing.
I wondered if hygge could also be sad. My sensory picture of hygge was beginning to come into focus and it seemed to be emerging as what a certain generation of Americans know as “warm and fuzzy.” While that feeling certainly is a good one, I had experienced it not just during happy times of celebration but also in the midst of dark passages.
Mette Bogh Jensen, curator of the Skagen Museum, says it is a myth that painters congregated in Skagen because of the light. She acknowledges that there is more hours of sunlight here in the summer than many places in the world, but attributes the artists’ attraction to the area more to adventure, economics and its emblematic motifs, such as the local fisherman.
“The artists came to Skagen because they were fascinated by the exoticness of the place, that it was far from the cities, difficult to get to, cheap to live in, and the fact there were other artists coming as well, and they could be a part of a community,” she said.
My next stop was to get a glimpse of how these artists had lived. I crossed the street from the Museum to the Michael and Anna Ancher House and, despite having to garb myself in protective footwear that looked like shower caps for my feet, I felt immediately at home. Danish culture and minimalism had not yet occurred to anyone in 1884 when the Anchers bought and began filling their home. And I do mean “filling” it.
The museum’s partial listing of the home’s contents include: door moldings Michael lifted from an old local house; a copper ceiling lampshade likely made from a pair of scales; an 1800 beechwood settee, bought on auction in the old grocery store in Sondervej by a fisherman who sold it to the Anchers; Royal Copenhagen dinner service with flower decoration on white ground, received from senior dune warden in exchange for a painting; and an ottoman, made by J.P. Larssen, lightship master of Skagen who was known for his “strangely carved furniture.”
And, of course, paintings—upon paintings. The entire house was virtually wallpapered with the Anchers’ art and that of their compadres.
This was as far as you could get from the sterile, sparse, form-following-function image I had of a Danish home. An avid collector myself, or pack rat as my husband would say, little did I know I had been channeling Michael and Anna’s interior design philosophy—stuff, lots of it.
The Danish Language Foundation defines hygge as an atmosphere of friendship and harmony, noting that we tend to take care of people we like by comforting them and keeping them warm and cozy. On the basis of this rationale, a house, a chair, a blanket or a sweater can be hygge, as can people or gatherings.
I was about to vicariously enjoy just such a hygge happening at the Grenan, a couple of miles north of Skagen. This crooked finger of sand beckoned—it marks the very tip of Denmark, a latitudinal notch for my belt. Always competitive, ever a person of extremes, I am irresistibly drawn to anything with the superlative suffix “est” attached. Middle of the road mediocrity was to be avoided at all costs; farthest, fastest, largest, longest—these were the measuring sticks I had lived my life by. While I was making a concerted effort to leave this mindset behind, old habits die hard.
Grenen qualified as a worthy destination. The headland is the northernmost part of one the world’s largest spits, the Skagen Odde, formed by the same sediments that created the Rabjerg Mile. While the Rabjerg dunes are a sensation because of their heights, the Grenen sandbar is extraordinary in its determined inching toward neighboring Sweden. Now 1.5 miles long, Grenen’s very tip is growing about 26 feet every year, like an outstretched index finger aching to make contact with Gothenburg 85 miles across the white-capped water.
I arrived at Grenan at 5 p.m., and began hiking out to the headland. I passed the grave of 19th century painter Holger Drachmann nestled in the dunes, thinking it was a lovely spot to spend eternity, and wondering if someone could actually choose to be buried on Grenan now if they so desired.
While it’s light until about 10 p.m. during summer in Skagen, the beach was sparsely populated as I made my way toward the end of Denmark. Wading northward through crystal clear waters with shoes in hand, I noticed a lovely lavender shape floating with the tide. I stood mesmerized by the motion of the jellyfish, a species that had stung me as a child, conscious of seeing it not a threat but a thing of beauty.
The Grenan’s hefty dunes trickled down to a sparse golden strand that bravely served as the dividing line between the dark waters of the calm Baltic, or Kattegat in Danish, and the emerald North Sea, or Skagerak. I drew closer to the point, a delicate wisp of beach dangling in a churning expanse of blue-green. A foaming line of whitecaps stretched out miles to the horizon line, separating the seas of which Kaj had sung. Alone at this intersection of sand, sea, and sky, I felt small amidst the vastness around me. I was surprised to realize that rather than feeling insignificant in the face of the enormous forces around me, I had a deep sense of connection.
It is the fast-moving currents of the two clashing bodies of water that pile more sand unto Grenen’s shores and propel it further north. Grenen is in a constant state of transformation, with each day’s weather and waves adding new texture and contours to its shape and character. I liked the idea that Grenen grew and became more solid and substantive in response to the forces that prevailed upon it. This was a new and positive way of looking at the inevitable encounters with outside influences that I always saw as menacing rather than enhancing.
As if on cue, like an affirmation of my newfound awareness, the sound of laughter made me look over my shoulder. Three big-wheeled tractors pulling open-air tourist trolleys crested a dune behind me. The vehicles snaked their way across the shifting sands, encircled me and rolled to a halt. A small crowd spilled out of the buggies, dapper and dazzling in tuxes and gowns. With champagne glasses in hand, they surged toward the shoreline, and stood barefoot on the Grenan’s tiny tail curving out into the water. I felt privileged to witness others’ hygge. A blonde man looked at me, smiled and raised his glass. I grinned back at him, imagining he was toasting my epiphany.
The next day, I explored Gammel or “old” Skagen, a summer enclave of Denmark’s well-to-do. Clusters of bright, low yellow houses and red roofs peek out from behind and around sprawling sand dunes, each home enthusiastically brandishing the Dannebrog, the Danish flag.
“Skagen yellow” is a rich, radiant shade of gold wash that nearly all the region’s houses are painted in, each capped with a wavy red-tiled roof. The story goes that, back in the day, due to Skagen’s remoteness, one large quantity of ochre paint was bought annually for the Whitsuntide whitewashing of the town’s houses. One year, some French golden ochre was delivered by mistake. The townspeople decided they preferred the sunny shade, and its use has stuck for hundreds of years.
This anecdote appealed to me immensely in its paradoxical symmetry. It seemed to be both an endorsement of profound change based on nothing more than a random fluke, as well as evidence of the deep human need for continuity. The open-mindedness of the Saeby villagers to be inspired by chance to adopt a new way of presenting themselves to the world seemed almost radical. At the same time, having made their big change, the Saeby residents stuck with it for centuries, perhaps just waiting for the next delivery snafu to jump start their next revolution.
I was reminded of how change always arrived for me, seemingly a flash out-of-the-blue--yet in most cases, I had been being hammered by hints for ages. And as much as I am often enamored of a fresh look at life, once I’ve adopted a new approach I am not overly eager to do it again anytime soon.
As I walked down toward the beach in the early hours, a trickle of old and young bathers emerged up the hill, wet from their restorative morning swim and wrapped in heavy towels, smiling hello.
I was reminded of the definition area resident Rene Zeeberg gave me for hygge.
“Yesterday I sat on the beach, the sun was shining, the waves were quietly washing up on the shore, and my dog was running around picking up different scents. I was throwing small stones on to the water, and then my girlfriend called to tell me she was on her way. The whole situation was to me what hygge is about. Nature, scenery, fresh air, good company—either with your friends and family, a dog, or through a phone call.”
It dawned on me that maybe hygge is a Danish word for mindfulness, for simply being present in the moment. Years later, in my ongoing encounters with life’s unknowns, I try to remember my lesson I learned from Dansih culture in going with the flow.