Written by Iulia Kolesnicov
Christmas in Denmark is fascinating and filled with traditions!
In December, Danes take to heart the sense of “hygge”, when the traditions start on the first day of December. Hygge means something between warmth and cozy, and for Danes that mean spending time with friends or family, lighting candles in the evening and drinking coffee or a warm drink. In December though, hygge is expanded to drinking snaps with honey, dancing around the Christmas tree and much more!
First of all let’s see where it all started. Pagan Germanic people celebrated Yule, the winter festival, between the end of December and the beginning of January, on a day determined by the lunar Germanic calendar. After the Julian calendar was adopted, the Yule was settled as correspondent to Christmas. Nowadays Christmas in Danish is called Jul and it is very important to know that, here, the birth of Christ is celebrated on the Christmas Eve or Juleaftensdag.
In the following lines we will try to talk about the Danish traditions chronologically, like a guide of spending Christmas in a Danish traditional manner.
Danes start preparing and celebrating in the Christmas spirit from the beginning of December, but for all the traditions to be respected some have to be ready by that time. In November Danish breweries release the new Christmas beer, which is darker and stronger than the usual one and it has a Christmassy presentation. This beer will be served at Christmas dinner together with the snaps, Gløgg and wine.
That’s the day Christmas starts on the land of the Danes with the advent wreath! Four Sundays before Christmas Eve, Danes light the first of the four candles in the wreath, counting down to the big celebration on Christmas Eve. Each of the next Sundays that come a new candle is lit together with the ones that were lit before. The wreath is traditionally made of fine spruce twigs and cuttings, decorated with red berries and spruce cones, white candles and red ribbons for attaching the wreath to the ceiling.
The days are counted down also with the advent calendar that can be seen in many forms: a regular paper calendar, with pieces of chocolate for the kids, as candles and even as snacks for cats or as a candle decorated with motives of fir and little pixies with red cheeks, wearing red hats and dancing merrily in yellow clogs. Most families light the candle calendar every day at the breakfast table.
In some families, it is common to drink “Honningsyp”, a drink that is a mix of snaps and honey (and sometimes lemon soda). Danes mix the drink and add it to a bottle, which is marked with 24 days, which measures one shot per day.
Children start counting down the days until Christmas with small gifts. They receive a present calendar with 24 small gifts bought for them by their parents. The two big TV channels produce a new Christmas series each year. The series is divided into 24 episodes, one for each day from the 1st of December until the Juleaftensdag.
On the night between the 12th and the 13thof December Danes celebrate Lucia night. According to the Catholic Church, Lucia is the saint of light. This holiday is usually celebrated in schools, churches, hospitals and other institutions where singing and small girl processions take place.
Two weeks before Christmas
This is the moment when Christmas preparations intensify. If you do not know how to bake or you usually prefer to buy, you will not get on with your old habit if you spend Christmas in Denmark. All Danish families, young or old, modern or conservative, start the great baking two weeks before Christmas. This is the moment to take out the oldest recipes and start baking the most delicious cakes and cookies. Some of the most popular Danish Christmas cookies are: ginger cookies, deep fried crullers, vanilla biscuits or gingerbread shaped as hearts and decorated with ribbons. At this time everyone is doing something, if not baking maybe making candies out of marzipan, chocolate fudge, almonds, hazelnuts and crystallized fruits and berries or decorations for the house and Christmas tree.
If you usually listen to the radio, now George Michael’s song, Last Christmas plays constantly on Danish radio stations.
The official day when families decorate their Christmas tree!
Christmas in Denmark is celebrated in family, so if you want to visit some of the closest friends and exchange gifts this is the most appropriate day to do so. And in the meantime you can try some of the Danish traditional “æbleskiver” (a special kind of doughnuts) with icing sugar, jam or maple syrup, “risengrød” (rice pudding) with sugar, cinnamon and a lump of butter in the middle and enjoy a cup of hot “Gløgg” (mulled wine) and “hvidtøl” (malt beer).
Christmas Eve (Juleaften)
As the Christmas celebration takes place on this evening, Christmas Eve is a very busy day; a special dinner has to be prepared. Danes usually attend an early mass in church where they sing carols and share the joy for this special day. The dinner is served quite early and the menu is impressive: roast duck or goose stuffed with apples and prunes and served with boiled and sweet potatoes, red cabbage and beets and cranberry jam. The dessert consists of ‘ris à l’amande’ (rice pudding with whipped cream, vanilla and almonds) with hot cherry sauce or ‘risengrød’ (hot rice pudding). A peeled almond is hidden in the dessert pudding and its finder will get a small present (bellow you will find a larger list of Danish traditional Christmas specialities).
Definitely you cannot have a Danish Christmas without a “Juletræ” (the Christmas tree). Decorations usually consist of silver or gold star on the top; never use an angel, festoons of national flags, cornets with fruit, candies or cookies, small toy music instruments and strips of tin foil, reflecting the light. In old times the father was the one that used to light the tree after the dinner, then the rest of the family joined him and danced hand in hand around the tree singing Danish Christmas carols. Nowadays all the family takes part at the tree lightening and after admiring it they dance around the tree and sing carols.
When the time of opening the presents start, one child goes under the tree and hands out one at a time to the family present. The child waits until the person has opened the gift to then get another gift under the tree to another person. After everyone has received their gifts it is time for candy, chips, various nuts, clementines, and Gløgg served hot.The 25th and 26th of December, Første Juledag and Anden Juledag, are usually spent relaxing and spending time with family. After all, in a few days you have to start preparing the New Years Eve party!
The Danish Christmas Seals are the most famous in the entire world. The famous seals have been printed since 1904 and famous artists all over the world design them each year.
Danish Christmas specialties
This article is also in Spanish: Navidad en Dinamarca