"We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!” With the Christmas month finally here, we, at the official representations of Denmark in the US, would like to spread some good, old-fashioned Danish Christmas “hygge” by inviting you all to get to know our Danish Christmas traditions. Keep reading!
Daily and weekly traditions In Denmark, most homes take part in the count-down to Christmas Eve, partly by lighting a calendar candle every day and partly by lighting the Advent wreath on the last four Sundays before Christmas. The calendar candle is a Danish tradition which was first suggested as something to make at home with the children in 1935, but since 1942 has been produced industrially. With its four candles, the Advent wreath marks the four Sundays in the Christian Advent, which is the New Year period of the Church. The Church year begins on the first Sunday in Advent, which falls on one of the seven dates between 27 November and 3 December. Apart from the calendar candle, the children have one or more Advent calendars, which may either have 24 flaps, one to be opened every day, or 24 small wrapped-up presents.
A classic Advent wreath, lighting the first candle on the first Sunday of Advent.
More Lights and Lucia Day Lights are popular in the dark month of December and besides from the Christmas calendar candle and the advent wreath, in most Danish towns, the main shopping streets are decorated with fir garlands and lights. In squares and gardens, there are Christmas trees with fairy lights, a custom dating back to 1914, when the first Christmas tree was lit on the Town Hall Square in Copenhagen. In recent years, it has also become common to cover many other trees or objects with fairy lights.
Another day where the use of lights to defeat darkness is celebrated is on 13 December, Lucia Day. This day is celebrated around the country in nursing homes and hospitals as well as many schools and day-care institutions.
Read more about Lucia Day here.
Recipe for Lucia Buns (in Danish) here.
A Danish Lucia procession.
Food, Lunches and PartiesFor most people, Christmas is a family event, but in addition the Christmas Month, as it is called, is also characterized by various kinds of parties, of which the most common is the annual Christmas lunch which has been held in most workplaces since the 1940s. Here, the staff eats a typical Danish lunch, which on this occasion should preferably consist of special Danish dishes. The Christmas lunch is accompanied by beer and schnapps or wine. For Christmas, the breweries produce various types of Christmas brew, which is stronger than ordinary beer.
In many different contexts, people meet in a less formal way to drink mulled wine (gløgg) and eat Christmas donuts (æbleskiver). While the mulled wine is of Swedish origin, the “donuts” is one of the oldest kinds of pastry known in Denmark, where it has formed part of ordinary party fare at least since the 17th century.
Æbleskiver and gløgg!
Other traditional Christmas treats include a range of Christmas cookies, among others the so-called pepper nuts (pebernødder). They can be traced further back than any other cookie! It is also very traditional to eat fresh marzipan and nougat “sandwiches” decorated with nuts and chocolate. These treats are also known as Christmas confection (recipe).
Pebernødder, or pepper nuts, fresh out of the oven.
Activities and Decorations A very traditional and old Christmas activity in Denmark is visiting the numerous Christmas markets. One of the most popular and famous is the Tivoli Garden’s yearly market with a new theme each year showcasing beautiful decorations. Another popular activity is of course to go get your own Christmas tree and/or make your own Christmas decorations.
Of course, the Christmas tree is one of the most important symbols of the secular Christmas. The trimmings are usually baubles, paper hearts and cornets, tinsel, garlands of Danish flags and especially candles, which may be either real wax candles or chains of electric candles. As far as we know, the first Christmas tree in Denmark was lit in 1808 and within a century the Christmas tree custom had spread to most Danish homes. By reading the Hans Christian Andersen tales that include Christmas trees in chronological order, it is possible to trace the dissemination of the custom in Denmark. They are ‘Hyldemor’ (The Elder-Tree Mother) (1842), ‘Grantræet’ (The Fir Tree) (1846), ‘Den lille pige med svovlstikkerne’ (The Little Match Girl) (1848), ‘Tolv med posten’ (Twelve by the Mail-Coach) (1861) and ‘Krøblingen’ (The Cripple) (1872).
Front page of H.C. Andersen's 'The Fir Tree'.
The Big Day Christmas, or the Christmas Days, are 24 December, Christmas Eve, as well as Christmas Day and Boxing Day (25 and 26 December). On these days, most shops are closed. For many people it is customary to attend the daytime Christmas church service on Christmas Eve. This is so to speak the start of the Christmas festival and one of the few days in the year when the churches are packed.
In most homes, Christmas Eve starts with Christmas dinner, where the main course is roast goose, duck or pork with sour-sweet red cabbage and caramelized potatoes. The other important item is the Christmas rice pudding, which is either served warm as a starter or cold as rice à l’impératrice with cherry sauce as a dessert. In this connection, it is important that there is one whole almond in either the warm or cold pudding. The person who gets the almond receives the so-called almond present, which traditionally was a marzipan pig. With their dinner, most people today drink red wine with the main course and a dessert wine with the dessert. The warm rice pudding is sometimes accompanied by sweet light beer, also called Yule brew.
A classic Danish feast on Christmas Eve.
The second highlight of the evening starts with the lighting of the Christmas tree candles, whereupon people ‘dance around the Christmas tree’, which means that they walk around the tree holding hands while singing Christmas hymns and songs. Underneath the Christmas tree are the Christmas presents, which are then distributed. In homes with children, it may be Father Christmas in the form of a dressed-up member of the family, who brings the presents. In Denmark, the presents were originally brought by the pixie, the old farm leprechaun or household god, who dates back to the pre-Christian era, but was associated with Christmas in the 19th century. Father Christmas arrived in Denmark in the late 19th century, literally on the postcards sent home from America by Danish emigrants and others. He gradually took over the pixie’s old role as present-bringer.
We wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy new year!
EMBASSY OF DENMARK, USA
3200 Whitehaven St. NW
Washington, DC 20008