As someone who’s generally slow to catch on to the latest Scandi lifestyle trend – I still haven’t seen Borgen, my grasp of hygge hasn’t gone much further than eating a lot of mashed potato and any time I go to Ikea, I get flustered and leave with just ice-cube trays – it’s a pleasant surprise to find I’ve already been practising Romjul for years, under my mother’s jurisdiction.
“Romjul” is the Norwegian word for the very last week of the year. But, more than just a calendar term, it’s also a ritual and a mindset, a time to cosy up with loved ones, take long, healthful walks, slow life to a meditative pace and reflect on the year just been.
“That’s just hygge with tinsel on!” you might cry – and you wouldn’t be wrong. But, when you consider the positive impact Scandinavia has already had on our diets, wardrobes and soft furnishings, it makes sense to let it breathe a little fresh air into the otherwise stagnant hinterland between Christmas and New Year. Especially this year, when it feels as though the whole world needs to have an Alka-Seltzer, a brisk stroll up a hill and a good hard think about what it’s done.
We never called it “Romjul” in suburban West Sussex, obviously. We called it “the bit between Christmas and New Year” – or, in later years, after a pithy rebranding exercise, “Twixtmas”. Sure, where the Norwegians have chic knitwear, walks in pine forests and gravlax, we have fleecy Slankets, a trip to a garden centre and a Lidl king prawn ring – but the principle is more or less the same. And my mother, I now realise, is the Romjul master. She knows how to turn even the tiniest mundanities of life into rituals worth cherishing.
Mum even has a Romjul manifesto: that everyone should legally have to spend the whole of the week in dressing gowns. Partly because they’re cosy and decadent, but mainly because they absorb spilled sherry with minimum fuss and save anybody putting a wash on. “On New Year’s Eve, everyone would be presented with a new dressing gown,” goes her annual pitch, “and we would burn the old ones and dance around the bonfire! The 'burning of the dressing gowns’, we could call it. It would be symbolic!”
It is my favourite week of the year – all of us together, rattling about under the same roof, with not much to do and elasticated waistbands to do it in
We never quite realise her vision (one needs to maintain some level of dignity even when you’re just popping out for more Gaviscon), but we give it a good go – a week of ambitiously rich nothingness. “Mindful mooching”, if you like. And it is my very favourite week of the year – all of us together, rattling about under the same roof, with not much to do and elasticated waistbands to do it in.
Her Romjul itinerary varies slightly according to weather and mood, but it always includes the following: the thorough annotation of the double Radio Times. Claiming to have no idea what day it is. The methodical eating of leftovers in smaller and smaller portions and stranger combinations until you're down to the last crumb of Stilton and a splodge of bread sauce, balanced on a coconut Quality Street. Reading interesting facts aloud from Christmas-present toilet books. The strewing of cracker toys around the house like tiny amulets. The quasi-religious observance of Jools Holland's Annual Hootenanny. Communal viewing of either Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or The Sound Of Music, during which everyone will get distracted and wander off before the end, muttering, “They always made them half an hour too long in the 60s.”
Also, a small helping of disaster. Not total catastrophe, but enough farcical mishap to make good anecdotes. A few years ago, it was the boiler breaking on Boxing Day. In 2001, it was Sunny the hamster departing for the big plastic wheel in the sky. Mum has romantic stories of the great Christmas blizzard of 1978, when an auntie and cousin came for the afternoon and ended up snowed in for a cosy fortnight.
Then there’s the jigsaw. The annual masterpiece, a 500-piecer with which all members of the household are obliged to put in time. I firmly believe jigsaws could be the new adult colouring book. The jigsaw must be completed before New Year or else… Actually, I’m hazy on the details – I think a curse befalls the family? Anyway, come the stroke of midnight on the 31st, that final piece will always be in place. We will stand back and admire our handiwork for a bit, before ceremoniously dismantling and boxing it up, ready to go straight back to the charity shop. Good Romjul requires a certain amount of ruthlessness, you see. Casting out the old, making space for the new.
Growing up, I always assumed it was because we were boring homebodies that Twixtmas never meant travelling or parties or going skiing or straying much more than 10ft from the leftover trifle. Only now do I realise Mum was engineering something far cooler, all along. Reflecting, recharging, strengthening family bonds to set us up for the year ahead.
This year, I’ll be spending my first Christmas Day away from my family, at the grand age of 28, meaning my Romjul will start two days late and mean more than ever. After a hectic, sometimes overwhelming and often miserable year (you know; you were there), I’m craving that period of hibernation. No plans, no social obligation, no agenda, no self-improvement. No need to worry about anything beyond the best way to build a turkey-leftovers sandwich (use potatoes to add structural integrity) and whether the 497th piece of the jigsaw has gone down the sofa.
Oh, I wish it could be Romjul every day. But then I suppose if it was, we wouldn’t need Romjul.