I Grew Up in a House That Looked Like a 'Hygge' Postcard. It Was a Lot of Work.

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©. K Martinko

For those of us who actually live in rustic settings in cold climates, the household items that define the 'hygge' decorating trend are a matter of survival.

You’ve probably heard of hygge by now. The Danish word that roughly translates as “cozy” has erupted into a hugely popular lifestyle trend that’s dominating Instagram, magazine covers, bookstore and department store displays. People are rushing out to buy items that they think will increase the hygge-ness of their homes – blankets, candles, woolly socks, mulled cider, and firewood – according to what they’ve been told in a host of newly published books on the topic.

The hygge craze amuses me greatly because, as someone who grew up in the bush in rural Canada, I see it as a home décor project for urbanites. Most of the things that are recommended by “hygge experts” as key items to purchase if you want to recreate that cozy, Scandinavian-looking atmosphere at home are real-life practicalities for families like mine. The desire to create a romantic atmosphere has almost nothing to do with it.

And, most unfortunately, once you delve into the reasons for the existence of these things, you realize they lose quite a bit of their romance. Let me explain.

living room

© K Martinko -- The fire is not just decorative. It takes the chill out of the room.

Take those fuzzy woolen blankets that you see draped artistically over rustic-looking furniture. In my childhood home, those were everywhere, but they served a practical purpose. The heat is terribly uneven in a house heated by a central wood-burning cookstove. It can be swelteringly hot on the main floor and frigid upstairs. You need all the layers you can get to make it through the night when the fire dies down. Don’t forget flannel pajamas and slippers, too.

All those pretty-looking candles and lanterns scattered throughout the house? They’re not decorative. The power goes out randomly and for prolonged periods of time, since we live in the forest. Emergency backup lighting is a must.

How about those beautiful woolen socks and moccasins? They’re not a fashion statement. Please see my article on keeping warm in the winter. We would get frostbite if it weren’t for warm socks. Wool doesn’t need to be washed as often as cotton, and it dries fast, which is important when you’re hanging sock out to dry in below-freezing temperatures. (Yes, we actually do that.)

The warm-looking plaid jackets worn by the majority of family members when working outside? Ha! We call it "the Muskoka tuxedo," named after the region, and it was one of the only outerwear fashion options for sale back in the mid '90s when my dad last went shopping. Remember, there's no such thing as online shopping from home when the nearest Internet connection is a five-minute drive down the road.

Books stacked everywhere? In a house with no Internet or TV, there’s nothing else to do in winter, unless you’re chopping wood or shoveling snow. We read a lot. (Note: This is a lifestyle choice on my parents’ part that has nothing to do with rural living.)

That lovely crackling fire in the fireplace? Fires do create atmosphere like nothing else, but they’re far more complicated than most people realize. The firewood alone represents hours of hard labor, hauling, chopping, and stacking in summertime in order to ensure dry wood for winter burning.

Then there’s the added complication of having multiple wood-burning devices in the home. If you’ve got a fireplace, cookstove, and furnace all lit at the same time (as happens occasionally at my parents’ house in the dead of winter), they require hourly feeding and maintenance, not to mention the need to keep windows cracked to eliminate the risk of asphyxiation from oxygen overdraw inside the house.

Plus there’s the risk of backdrafts and the mess of soot and gases that can erupt into the house if not all chimneys are being used at the same time. Not so hygge-sounding after all, eh?

Home-cooked family meals? Yes, these are really lovely, but they quickly lose their romance when take-out doesn’t exist in the entire county in wintertime and the nearest restaurant is a 45-minute drive away. Here, you always have to cook, like it or not.

There’s a lesser-known side of real rustic living, too – a cold, dark outhouse that my parents call “The Goblins.” It was built for the frequent power outages, but we’re supposed to use it all the time. I try to look at the positive side – a mad dash through blowing snow and an icy sit on a wooden seat do wonders to jolt oneself out of the lethargy induced by sitting in front of a hot fireplace for too long.

I love the hygge-ness of my childhood home, but I suspect that if the most vocal proponents of the trend were to spend some time living the whole picture and actively managing it – instead of cherry-picking the most romantic and marketable aspects of the atmosphere – they would quickly realize it’s not nearly as cozy as it seems. There’s so much to do, you hardly have any time to relax in front of the fire!