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Beyond the lifestyle craze

The popular Danish custom of hygge would have been very familiar to the early church, says Kate Waterman, who suggests we rediscover Koinonia this Christimas

Roughly pronounced ‘hoogah’, and derived from the Norwegian for ‘wellbeing’, hygge refers to a hugely important aspect of Danish culture. Although there is no single English-word equivalent, it describes the creation of a safe and cosy atmosphere where simple pleasures are appreciated and shared, our social or family group is recognised and celebrated, and happiness and contentment are increased.

Although much has been written recently about how to experience the comfort of hygge on one’s own, traditionally this enriching practice is about crafting a warm context for connection.

As always with lifestyle trends, this appealing custom has been exploited by the commercial market, consumers being enticed into buying the potential of an edifying ‘life-experience’ with a bewildering array of hyggelig merchandise. From fluffy socks and tableware to soft furnishings and cuisine, the advertisers foolishly suggest that hygge is now available in a box.

Commercialism apart, true hygge is a wonderful cultural ethos. Born out of the long dark winters, this feature of Danish life has a thing or two to teach us about finding joy in everyday circumstances. And anything which encourages a materialistic generation to invest in relationships, and look for and take pleasure in simple things, is to be applauded.

However, what hygge expresses should already be a normal part of our Christian experience, and we also have a word for it. ‘Koinonia’ is the Greek word used to describe the early church’s habit of ‘doing life together’: eating, learning, sharing and worshipping from house to house [Acts 2:42–47, 4:32].

Translated ‘fellowship’, koinonia is not restricted to after-church coffee, but refers to the deep intimate sharing of lives. And it includes one crucial ingredient which sets it apart from every other expression of togetherness; Christian fellowship is centred around the presence of God. Jesus promised that whenever two or three are gathered together in his name, he would be right there in the middle [Matthew 18:20]. It is in his presence where we truly experience intimacy with others, where we accept and are accepted, where we love and receive love.

Hygge comes into its own at Christmas, as traditionally it includes not only the gathering of family and friends, but the creation of cosy settings, with candlelight and natural decorations; and the sharing of food, laughter and fun. All of these things contribute to a wonderful celebration, and can be truly inspirational; but all fall short unless they also embrace the wonderful truth of “Emmanuel, God with us”.

The message of Christmas is not that we climb up to God, but that he comes down to us to meet us where we are. Our comforting winter traditions, atmospheric decorations and family gatherings can include a treasure far beyond anything envisioned by a lifestyle guru; they can be filled with the tangible presence of Emmanuel – if we invite him in.

SIX STEPS TO CHRISTMAS KOINONIA

Simplify

Sometimes we get so caught up in the Christmas rush that we don’t stop to consider what it’s all for; so let’s take time out to review it all with the Lord. Which things on our agenda are nice, but expendable, and how many activities are an absolute priority? Perhaps we can pare down our ‘to do’ list, and focus on doing fewer things with greater faith and expectancy?

This season is also full of little moments of grace: the scent of pine-needles, an unexpected Christmas card, mince pies fresh from the oven or the laughter of a child; a beautiful shop window or a favourite carol; all can be received as love-gifts from our Heavenly Father. Let’s take time to stop and savour them, give thanks, and share them with others.

Prioritise relationships

At its heart the Christian life is all about relationships – with the Lord, our families, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and with the outside world. And most of the time these relationships are lived out outside the four walls of a church building, or the confines of a meeting or service. The domestic household is invested with real significance in the New Testament. Jesus constantly ‘fellowshipped’ with people in their homes, which became the setting for all sorts of ministry. The book of Acts and the Epistles make it clear this pattern was continued by the early church.

Let’s rescue koinonia from the narrow confines of Bible study, prayer and worship – as important as they are. In addition to developing our ‘vertical’ relationship with the Lord, true fellowship is also ‘horizontal’, and is expressed through intimacy, equality, inclusion and person to person ministry; and it’s about joy. Laughter and play are as much part of our spiritual lives as Christian teaching and intercession.

Let’s take the opportunity to offer our homes to the Lord to build koinonia this Christmas. Let’s show the priority of relationships in our schedules; and let’s develop an expectation that our home-based festive gatherings will be filled with the glory of God.

Prepare the context

Candles, Christmas trees, decorations and music can all be used to make a welcoming and relaxing atmosphere. Making a space where others can kick off their shoes and just be is a much needed ministry in a world where status and material possessions are idolised. Hygge enthusiasts have produced many inspirational resources to help here; the Danish emphasis on low-cost simplicity and comfort being an important counter to the enticement to impress found in much of the festive media.

Enjoy the feast
It’s OK to party; not with drunkenness and crudity, but with fun, laughter and good food. Jesus did not feel out of place at a wedding feast, and later on in his ministry was wrongly labelled a drunkard and glutton by his enemies – I suspect because he was seen to eat and drink with joyous thanksgiving. A good honest koinonia feast is a taste of the Great Banquet to come, when we will celebrate with Jesus in his kingdom. And whenever we share a meal together, we can invite an extra ‘guest’. Just as Jesus was revealed to the disciples at Emmaus at the dinner table, so we can expect to encounter him at our Christmas feasts.

Open the doors

As we have seen, the festive season provides a wonderful context to spend quality time with family and friends; but it is also a great opportunity to reach out to the lonely and sad, the ignored and overlooked; those in need of family. Many people need to belong before they believe; why not ‘extend the borders of your tent’ this Christmas? This is about hospitality not entertaining; blessing rather than performance. Let’s not be so busy with the preparations, that we miss the opportunity to share the amazing gift of God’s presence with the people around us.

Invite Emmanuel in

And most important of all, let’s invite Jesus to be at the centre of all our Christmas activities. Let’s invite him to fill our homes with his presence; show his glory through our creativity, join us at the table, and touch our relationships with his grace. Let’s make this Christmas special. Let’s take a current lifestyle trend, invest it with faith, turn it into koinonia, and let’s expect to encounter Emmanuel at every turn.

Kate Waterman lives in Northumberland, where she divides her time between writing, speaking and enjoying country living. Connect with her at www.rhythmsofgraceuk.org

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