The Warmth of The Inverted Year // Kinfolk Magazine Volume 2

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Sporadic rain had mostly cleared the streets of pedestrians, ushering them into some safe warm place. The people who were out that night were heavily bundled and galoshed against the windand the wet. There was no snow yet; maybe by Christmas. A laughing couple rode their bicycles past me while I fumbled with a  ruined map. The candy-colored architecture of the old town stoodancient and asymmetrical all around me—like a stage for a crooked fairy tale, a lost scene from Dickens. On a nearby balcony a cigarette glowed red through the rising night fog. Though barely seven o’clock, it felt much later. It had been dark for hours.

The street was empty—misty wet and motionless except for me—and, for a moment, I felt like the stranger I was. I breathed into my hands and scanned the buildings for an address, a house number, anything. I was half sure this was the right street: Kongens-something-or-other. It had better be right or I’d be more than just turned around—I’d be lost. Down here the city was irregular at best, a medieval patchwork sewn together by a million alleys and waterways. What had Jacob said? “Look for the green door and the candles on the steps.” 

The candles on the steps. Of course...why wouldn’t there be candles on the steps...out here in the rain...in Denmark? 

After a few false starts, wrong turns, and double backs I finally came to it. I locked my old blue bike to an iron fence with the others. There were, indeed, candles on the steps, their small flames fighting against the mist. Wood smoke rose from the chimney above the house with the green door. From a ground floor window an orange glow spilled into the gloomy street below. Standing on my tiptoes I could see the tops of my friends inside, gathered closely around something. A game? A story? A table of food? Each of the faces through the window was dimly but warmly lit. Smiling. Talking with their hands. A bolt of laughter, audible even outside. A raised glass of wine, then Jacob at the window, waving me in. But I didn’t need the formality of an invitation. The glow from the window, the ruddy countenances, the echo of laughter, the promise of mulled wine, the green door, and the candle-lit stairs were all the invitation I needed. Something was already ushering me into that safe warm place—past the candles, out of the cold, and into the light of the best of human defenses against the darkness. 

I moved to Denmark in the summertime. When the days are long and the light is plentiful. Where, for a season, the warm sun draws people out from under their roofs and into broad open spaces. Into the high brightness. In the months before the long dark returns. 

Copenhagen was magic that summer. Eighteen hours of light can do strange things to the mind and body—especially in a city as vibrant and colorful as the Danish capital. Parades of men and women wore subtle sunburns and subtler smiles as they cycled through the crooked city streets. Offices and shops closed for weeks to air out their staff. Grown people on lunch breaks publicly shed their clothes to soak up sun before returning to the bank and the bakery. Busy boats filled the city’s waterways. Commuters lingered on their walks home, visiting long with friends at patio bars and stopping for ice cream along the canals. Apartments and homes nightly emptied their residents into courtyards and gardens for endless dinners. 

That summer I often went to bed out of a sense of duty rather than a desire to sleep, while the sky was still bright enough to keep me awake. The Scandinavian summer is something of a revolution—a throwing off of routine, and rigidity, and the confinement of walls. Each day a holiday, a celebration of light. 

And then September came. The sun grew bashful. No more dinners in the garden. Autumn was a brief moment between extremes. The summer gold faded into gray by October, to wet gray by November, and then into cold wet gray by December. When the days were short; when the light was missing. The contrast between summer and winter was profound—almost painful. As an American from the Midwest I knew cold winters, but not this deep darkness. Some days—near the solstice—if it was fully overcast there might only be a few hours of useful daylight. 

The long winter months are hard, arriving like an uninvited guest. Northern people have always known this. The combination of dreary weather and darkness is a recipe for despair. The season seems to offer only limitations. How then do the Danes manage the harshness of winter after winter, year after year? What inner lamp burns bright enough (individually and collectively) to keep people warm against the bleak midwinter? Against the darkness? 

I didn’t find my answer until I looked through the window of that house with the green door. The friends framed inside—a moving picture of good cheer—gathered together around the common things that combat the dark nights of the year as well as the dark nights of the soul: comfort food and camaraderie, wooly blankets, and bottles of wine. 

The Danes have a word for this shared warmth. It’s a word we do not have in English: hygge (hoo-gah). It means something like cozy and safe and peaceful and thoughtful and altogether beautiful. Hygge smells like cinnamon and feels like a child’s Christmas. Maybe hygge is untranslatable because, like all the best moments in life, it can’t be captured by mere words. Whether you’re trying to describe young love or Holy Communion or the first moments of fatherhood, simple words are like ill-fitting clothes: small and unflattering. And while hygge can happen in any season or place, it is certainly most fully realized in the darkest moments of the year, when candles and hearth fire and twinkling bulbs and kindness are the best we have to push back the gloom. If summer is a window opened wide to the breadth of life, then winter must be the gathering back in of souls to rejoin one another at a common table. The winter draws us into our cottages and cabins and huddles us around pots of brewing cider.

Winter is a collector of close comforts. The Englishman Thomas Cowper understood this unique quality of winter when he wrote, “O Winter! ruler of the inverted year...I crown thee king of intimate delights, fireside enjoyments, home-born happiness, and all the comforts that the lowly roof of undisturbed retirement, and the hours of long uninterrupted evening, know.” 

And that is, precisely, what I found inside the room atop the stairs with the candles—comfort, delight, and happiness. In the presence of friends I found warmth against both the cold dark of winter and the shared hardships of daily life. That night, the room with the glowing window became a sanctuary whose green door kept back the bleak weather and the black of night. Inside we were a handful of radiant souls pouring light out into the dark winter street. We were hopeful characters in a high northern story, sharing the unselfish light of hospitality and laughter and hope which are, and have always been, the great shield and sword against the melancholy shadow of the inverted year.

Reprinted with kind permission of Kinfolk Magazine.