The Danes love Christmas
In Denmark the month of December is filled with special food, gifts and lots of parties. Copenhagen is extra sparkly with Christmas decorations and the Danes are getting their ‘hygge’ on, their special brand of warm and fuzzy so well suited to their cold climate.
Official start of Christmas in Denmark ‘J-Day’
Christmas comes early in Denmark. The first official date on the Christmas calendar is J-Day, which falls on the first Friday of November. It is the day that Tuborg officially releases its Christmas beer or Julebryg. Four hundred trucks travel out from the Carlsberg brewery, and, at 8.59pm precisely, start delivering the special Christmas beer to pubs all over Denmark. Everyone gets very excited when the trucks arrive, as special party hats are also handed out, super excited as I snagged one this year. The nation’s bars, pubs and discos are packed with drunken partiers decked out in Santa hats and elf costumes and the early Christmas party lasts well into the small hours.
A little light each day: The calendar candle
Another Danish tradition in the lead up to Christmas is the calendar candle. The daily lighting of the candle tends to be a special time shared by the family at the start of the day. Each day the candle is allowed to burn down a little then blown out when it reaches the correct date. Many Danish families also light advent candles on each of the four Sundays in Advent. I love the advent candle my sister bought me when she came to visit.
A month of presents: Danish calendars
Advent calendars are called Christmas calendars in Denmark. Danish Christmas calendars come in many different forms not just the Cadbury’s chocolate treats I grew up with, although we have one of those too. Alan also brought back an Nespresso coffee advent calendar, but next year I have my eye on the Magasin Shop one. Many families also wrap 24 small gifts for each child, which they open each day in the lead up to Christmas Eve.
By the middle of November there are Christmas markets everywhere in Denmark. It is fun to wander through them, stopping off for a sausage and a cup of hot chocolate or some gløgg, Danish mulled wine. I have always said you can never be too sparkly, after sixteen months in Copenhagen, may I venture that you can also never be too fluffy!
Take part in a special celebration on Lucia night
St Lucia is the Catholic Saint of Light and her festival is celebrated on the 13th December. In schools and kindergartens all over Denmark, young girls dress in white and sing in procession. One of the girls is chosen to represent Santa Lucia and she leads the procession wearing a candle headdress and a red sash. It is said that Saint Lucia wore the candles on her head in order to keep her hands free, so she could feed the poor hiding in the catacombs of ancient Rome. The red sash symbolizes the fire that would not touch her when she was burnt at the stake for her Christian beliefs in the 3rd century. Whilst out last year I saw this slightly different take on The Santa Lucia tradition.
I have been to two Christmas lunches or Julefrokoster this December so far, although one was at night. An average Dane will attend three to four julefrokoster and one or two familiejulefrokoster during Jul.
A typical Julefrokost involves lots of beer, wine and snaps. It lasts a long time, with many courses and many toasts. The first course is a variety of seafood, open face sandwiches with pickled, cured and, bizarrely, curried herring and shrimps served exclusively on rugbrød, a special Danish rye bread, based on sourdough and whole grains. Next up is deep fried plaice filet with Danish remoulade. Sometimes there is also gravlax or smoked salmon, smoked eel and liver pâté. We then move onto the main course which is a selection of pork, roasted and fried, ham and roast duck. This is served with red or green braised cabbage dishes. Oh and don’t forget the frikadeller, the special Danish meatballs. Desserts are usually cheeses, fruit and risalamande, a special rice dessert associated with Christmas. Every so often, someone calls out “Skål” which is Danish for cheers, and everyone stops eating to take a drink. Thankfully Denmark has an excellent public transportation system and no-one needs to drive home.
Most Danes put up a Christmas tree which is decorated with national flags, cornets filled with fruit, candies or cookies and small toy musical instruments. On the top of the tree they put a silver or gold star, never an angel. They also hang fairy lights, but many families continue with the old tradition of putting real candles on the tree. Danes who live in the country can go and cut their own trees down. For us city dwellers, we can buy trees from one of the many Christmas markets and then strap them to our bikes to get them home. Sadly we left all our Christmas decorations in Connecticut so our tree this year is very minimalistic, with just white lights. I quite like it.
In Denmark, Santa Claus is known as Julemanden (literally “the Yule Man”). Julemanden travels on a sleigh drawn by reindeer, with presents for the children. His helpers are elves known as julenisser (or simply nisser), who are traditionally believed to live in attics, barns or similar places. Children leave out saucers of milk or rice pudding or other treats for the nisser on the afternoon on the 24th as a thank you for all their hard work.
Danish homes tend to have a selection of nisser, as they are terribly cute!
In Denmark, Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve, a day full of present wrapping and many hours of dinner preparations. Danish families come together to eat, drink and be merry and to exchange gifts. There is also a tradition of watching a disney show on Christmas, the same one every year apart from the clip at the end which features an upcoming disney movie!
Old Christmas beliefs
It was a custom to give the animals a special treat on Christmas Eve. It was believed that all animals could talk for this one night only, and nobody wanted the animals to speak badly of them! Today some Danish families continue the tradition. They go for a walk in the garden, in the park or forest and bring along small treats for their pets.
Danish Christmas dinner
Dinner is served around 4pm. Most Danish families eat roast duck on Christmas Eve, but roast goose or pork with crackling is also common. Sometimes they serve duck and pork. They are served with boiled and sweet caramel potatoes, red cabbage, beets and cranberry jelly. The dessert is again ‘Ris à L’amande’, which is a rice pudding with slivers of almonds, served with a hot cherry sauce. One of the almonds is left whole and whoever finds it in their bowl gets a special gift.
Dancing around the tree
After dinner, the candles on the tree are lit. Everyone joins hands and dances around the tree, whilst singing traditional Danish Christmas hymns and carols. Then its time to exchange gifts. Normally, one of the children is chosen to select the wrapped presents from under the tree and hand them over one at the time, so everyone can watch each present being unwrapped.
After the last present is opened it is time for coffee, fruit and sweet treats.
No special activities are planned for Christmas Day, although many of the churches offer services. Is a time for relaxing and playing with all the new toys.
Even ‘The little book of Hygge’ says defining hygge is hard. It is about being together with loved ones, candles are involved, coffee, cake and alcohol can all play a part. But it is more an atmosphere than tangible elements. After years in America I think about it as making lemonade with lemons. Denmark is cold and often the weather is miserable. The Danes have embraced all of this and turned it into a positive experience, with an abundance of fluffy things and a great attitude.
May I wish all of you a very happy and hygge Christmas!
Gløgg is similar to mulled wine except it is a little sweeter, slightly more alcoholic and has almonds and raisons added to it. This is my version which I have adapted from Delia’s standard mulled wine recipe from her fabulous Christmas book.
For around 12 people
2 bottles of robust but not terribly expensive red wine, then using the bottles the same amount of water
very large slug of port, rum or a fruit liquor ( couple of glasses)
1 orange, stuck with cloves
2 oranges sliced
2 lemons sliced
6 tablespoons of brown sugar or honey (or white sugar)
To add to the glass before pouring in the gløgg some raisins and slivered almonds
Add all the ingredients with the exception of the raisins and almonds to a large pan. Simmer over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Simmer for a further 20 minutes, making sure the mixture does not boil or the alcohol will evaporate. Taste and adjust for sweetness and alcohol content. Serve with a little raisins and almonds in the bottom of the glass. Skål!