The Danes’ Christmas begins with the Advent wreath. The wreath has four candles, each of which is lit every one of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Eve the 24th of December. Adventus is Latin and means come and it is of course the count down to what comes at Christmas, namely the birth of Jesus, which in this way is celebrated in virtually all Danish homes.
Traditionally the Advent wreath is made out of fine spruce twigs and cuttings, often decorated with red berries and spruce cones, white candles and red ribbons for attaching the wreath to the ceiling. Every Sunday a new candel is lit together with the one(s) already lit the previous Sunday. This means that alle four candles - each one obviously shorter than the other(s) - are burning all together on the forth Advent Sunday.
Nowadays you’ll find many inventive versions of the traditional wreath, using all kinds of material and decorated in more modern ways, including colored candles. That’s just fine but they can never replace the spruce original.
Another December tradition is the calender candle. This candle is, just like a tape measure, provided with 24 markings, normally decorated with motives of fir and little pixies with red cheeks, wearing red hats and dancing merrily in yellow clogs. In most families the candles are lit every day from December 1st as a soothing factor in a hectic period, quite often at the breakfast table. Frequently it is the childrens’ duty to blow out the candle before it burns down too far into the next date!
Also in the beginning of December the windows are lit up with candles and light chains and decorated with all kinds of red flowers. The obligational out door Christmas tree is lit with hundreds of white lightbulbs. Very often even the odd tree in the garden is lit up with small lightbulbs. People with no garden do a great job of decorating their balcony or just their window frames and sills.
As December wears on all families dress up the interior of their houses with glass globes, festoons, paper hearts and stars, cornets, music boxes and a lot of family artifacts that somehow have survived the passing on from parents to kids for many decades. Small Christmas decorations are produced in the evenings around the dinnertable. The ingredients are cones, moss, lichen, leaves and berries of all sorts and held together by a lump of clay on a plate. As always, there has to be a candle in the middle to make the atmosphere complete.
All nursery schools, elementary schools, colleges, hospitals and institutions contribute to this national effort of making Christmas in Denmark both profound, warm and beautiful for every citizen.
The Christmas brew plays a major roll in many of the traditional Danish luncheons that every single company with more than one employee carry out every year in December. Most hotels, inns and restaurants offer special Christmas dishes on their menus and every single canteen from Skagen in the far North of Denmark to Gedser in the far South is occupied with this very important question: What are we going to have for our Christmas luncheon?
The answer is really quite simple: The traditional Danish kitchen offers a wide variety of cold and warm dishes which all belong to this famous ritual, normally offered at a buffet: Salmon and herring prepared in different ways and with different dressings, shrimps, lobster and crab, filet of fried plaice with remoulade, fried sausage (medisterpølse) and meatballs (frikadeller) with red cabbage and beets, roast pork and bacon with fried apples, sirloin of pork with soft fried onions, black pudding with sirup, liverpaste with bacon and champignon, hamburger with fried egg, sunny side up, fried duck, a variety of cold cuts, chicken- and fruit salad, different kinds of cheese med fruit and ris à l’amande with cherrysauce. Everyting is eaten with white and dark bread and butter and to go through it all demands both a strong physique and a mind of steel.
To make it all go down well you not only have the beer (or wine - or even sparkling water for the drivers) but also the Christmas snaps, which like the beer is presented every year before Christmas.
The parcel game is also a well-known tradition, where everybody brings a small parcel to the table. You then hit a dice, and if you get a 6, you may take a parcel from the table. When all the packages are gone, someone sets a timer of an unknown time interval and then the real game begins. You hit the dice and if you get a 6, you can now steal a parcel from another person. When the timer stops, you are allowed to open the parcels you might have.
In the cities of Denmark you will see many Christmas markets, decorations and eating of the traditional fritters (æbleskiver). Often the larger towns will announce "the arrival of Santa", where Santa plays with the kids, give them gift bags and dance around large Christmas trees.
All Danish kids get one or more Advent calenders - or Christmas calenders as they are called in Denmark. The two big television channels each year produce a special new Christmas series divided into 24 episodes to keep the childrens’ excitement on high revs. The more fortunate children also get a gift calender consisting of 24 small presents, one for each day before Christmas, individually bought and wrapped by their parents.
The world famous Danish Christmas Seals celebrate their 103 anniversary this year. That makes them the worlds oldest of their kind and it is probably only to be expected that the country which originally invented the postal system also created the Christmas seal.
Since its debut in 1904 the seals have been copied in many countries around the world. They are designed each year by specially invited artists. Among the most famous designers is the Danish Queen Margrethe II, who at many occasions has proved to posses extraordinary artistic skills.
The Christmas seals are used on letters and postcards, just like stamps, but they are not obligatory. They are sold only around Christmas time and the revenue is distributed to needy children.
It is not unusual for Danes to write a lot of Christmas cards to friends and family and most of them are provided with the Christmas seals. The cards are never printed in advance in the Hallmark fashion but handwritten like in the good old days.
According to the Catholic Church Lucia is the saint of light (lux = light in Latin). She is celebrated on the night between the 12th and the 13th of December, especially in schools, retirement homes, hospitals and other institutions all over Denmark, with small girl processions and traditional singning. Legend has it that Lucia, in order to keep her hands free, wore a wreath with candles on her head so that she could (illegally) feed the poor christians on the hide in the catacombs of ancient Rome.
As Christmas approaches all kinds of preparations accelerate in each and every Danish home. Remarkably, the old Scandinavian tradition has survived more og less untouched even in these modern times. Cerlainly, Christmas has been commercialized like everywhere else but all Danes - even young and hard core computer freaks - give in to their heritage at this particular time of the year. Everybody tries to participate in the preparation for Christmas Eve, however humble the effort!
The last two weeks before Christmas the great baking period begins - naturally with the kids playing the major rolls. Ginger cookies made from old traditioal recipies, deep fried crullers, vanilla bisquits and gingerbread shaped as hearts and decorated with ribbons - every family has favorite formulas from way back that has to be carried out at this time of the year.
While the oven is working overtime all agile persons are concentrated in creating Christmas decorations for the house or the tree and sweetmeats or candies out of marzipan, chocolate fudge, almonds, dates, hazelnuts and crystallized fruits and berries. Luckily, the demand for clean hands and fingernails is top priority at this time of the ear!
Traditionally the Danish Christmas tree is the common spruce type, some call it the Norwegian spruce. In the old days, before central heating, this was fine. All homes were cold and moist and therefore perfectly suited to maintain the green neddles of the spruce.
Nowadays most people prefer the Normann spruce. It not only has softer needles, it also withstands the normal room temperature of modern homes much better. But beware: A true old fashioned Christmas enthusiast will scorn you for choosing anything but the common spruce. Even if it scatters needles all over your house and at New Years Eve looks rather poorly.
Families fortunate enough to live close to the woods try to pick and cut their own tree. Already when the fall sets in, the days shorten and the gales roam it’s time to choose the most beautiful tree of the forest. The ideal setting for any happy family is a weekend outing in mid December with daddy pulling the kids on the sledge with one hand, carrying the axe in the other, and mummy with the sandwiches and the thermo in the backpack - all on the lookout for that perfect tree. And you have to believe this: They always find it!
But of course, most Danes have to by their Christmas tree just around the corner. All over the country special sites have been chosen for just this very important purpose, and in many places it is the Danish boyscouts who control the trade and thus are able to add some funding to their good deeds.
ChristmasThe most sacred Danish Christmas ritual concerns the lighting of the tree. You have to use real candles with real fire. No electricity, thank you. That’s how it all began, that’s how it’ll stay. Of course, a lot of people have treacherously swapped the candles with the much easier and not so dangerous light chains. They don’t drip, they don’t mess and they don’t put the house on fire. But, surely, they lack a bit of the original atmosphere. One thing is certain: If you chose to use light chains in stead of candles you have to use uncolored bulbs.
The tree itself is decorated with a silver or gold star on top (never an angel), festoons of national flags, cornets with fruit, candies or cookies, small toy music instruments and the entire tree often finished off with scatters of white fairy hair or strips of tin foil. Especially the tin foil will reflect the flickereng light from the candles beautifully, whereas the tow creates a kind of fairytale illusion.
But the world famous Danish Design has advanced in this area too, and companies like for exampel Georg Jensen produces very elegant and expensive Christmas decorations every year, loved by collectors and connaisseurs all over the world.
Previously it was the father in the family who was in charge of lighting the Christmas tree. After dinner (and the washing up!) he would wander off by himself to the adjacent room with the tree and light up the candles. Then he would invite the rest of the family to solemnly join him and admire the wonderful sight.
Nowadays the children take part in all the sacred procedures. It is, comming to think of it, because of the children that Christmas still exists in the way it does, so why not let them be as active as possible? For the same reason, Christmas dinner is served quite early these days, often no later than six o’clock p.m. In this manner the real meaning of Christmas (the kids’ presents, that is) can be opened while the children are still on high notes.
23rd of December, the night before Christmas Eve has a unique atmosphere, one of a kind. For most people this is the first day of the vacation, and many use the opportunity to see close friends and part of the familiy that they don’t have a chance of meeting for the next few days because of the Christmas obligations.
Often they exchange small gifts and the children are served “æbleskiver” (small cakes of batter cooked on the stove in a special pan) with icing sugar, jam or maple sirup while the adults enjoy a cup of hot glögg. On the menu is “risengrød” (rice boiled in milk) with sugar, cinnamon and a lump of yellow butter in the middle. On top of this is served “hvidtøl” (a Danish kind of household beer, low fermented and of medium gravity). But nobody will give you the tar-and-feather treatment if you sit this one out!
The big festival is Christmas Eve the 24th of December. As usual, it is always the night before the big day that’s really fun. Just think of New Year the 1st of January!
Everybody is busy on the day of Christmas Eve. Each year we promise each other that this is absolutely the last time we are going to leave everything until the last minute. From now on our planning will be immaculate and therefore we’ll have time to do all the things that we always wanted to do. Peacefully.
This year, however, we still need to buy a couple of presents and the last few objects that will make the evening complete. Luckily the shops don’t close until 2 or 4 p.m., so there is still a chance for the forgetful and the hesitating.
In many families lunch is eaten coincidentally. The kids should really have a nap but thy won’t. They are much too excited.
In the old days it was common to give the animals a special treat on Christmas Eve. It was widely believed that all animals could talk on this special night, and nobody would like the animals to speak ill of you. Today some families continue that tradition. They go for a walk in the garden, in the park or in the field or forest and bring along small goodies for the animals on this very special occasion.
A lot of people attend an early Christmas mass in church afterwards, not necessarily because they are devoted churchgoers but because listening to the organ and the traditional Danish Christmas carols add to the good Christmas spirit.
Dinner is served quite early. Most people eat roast duck on Christmas Eve but roast goose or roast pork with crackling rinds is widely used. The duck or goose is stuffed with apples and prunes and served with white and sweet potatoes, red cabbage and beets and cranberry jam. As dessert is normally served ris à l’amande (cold rice pudding) with hot cherry sauce or “risengrød”, if you are very traditional.
A peeled almond is hidden in the dessert bowl. The lucky finder of the almond gets a special almond present. Sometimes the visitors at the Christmas table have also bought special presents. In that case they are normally presented to the person(s) sitting left and/or right to the original winner.
A good claret (why not a Pommerol) goes extremely well with this dinner, and maybe an old Port or Madeira with the dessert.
After dinner the tree is lit, at last, and everybody join hands and wander around the tree singing the traditional Danish Christmas hymns and carols. A lot of people don’t have enough space for the tour around the tree. In that case it works just as fine to sit, reflect and enjoy the unique spectacle. The atmosphere heats up, naturally, if it now begins to snow outside. But unfornunately it seldom does.
Most Danes know their songs, their hymns and their carols almost by heart because they are taught in school. Whether they like it or not at the time of learning, they’ll always remember the Danish unique treasury of song, the melodies and the strong poetry. The reason why this is possible is of course the small size of the country and the only about 5 million people to inhabit it.
When the children have had quite enough of the singing (and that doesn’t take very long) it is finally time for the unwrapping of gifts. Normally one of the children is chosen to find and deliver the presents, one at the time, and please wait, until the recipient has opened his present and shown his appreciation. It belongs to the dealer’s duties to see to it that no one gets left alone during this long climax of Christmas.
After the last present it is time for fresh fruit, cookies, candy and coffee with maybe something a little stronger or a beer. But never very much drinking. The Danish Christmas is a quiet one and no one hardly ever gets too much to drink. Normally everybody is in bed by midnight.
On Christmas Day only the kids get up early to enjoy their presents from the night before. This day is a very quiet time in most families as the more formal visits with luncheons and other activites normally begin on the 26th of December.