Christmas in Denmark

30 Dec

Christmas is a really, really (did I say really?) big deal in Denmark. This year, I was lucky enough to celebrate this most cherished of Scandinavian holidays in Lynge, a tiny countryside town outside of Copenhagen, with my Danish host family who I previously stayed with while studying abroad in Copenhagen in spring of 2012. Before I discuss the numerous traditions which animate a Danish Christmas, it’s important to understand the origins of the holiday.

The Danish word for Christmas is Jul, which comes from the Old Norse word Jól and is related to the English word Yule. The holiday traces its origins back to prehistoric times, when a midwinter festival was held to celebrate the winter solstice – a significant event in Northern Europe, since the winter solstice marks the point in the year when the amount of daylight hours begins increasing instead of decreasing (on December 21st, the sun rose at 8:37am and set at 3:38pm, giving us only 7 hours of daylight on the shortest day of the year). Early Christian missionaries to Scandinavia were careful to associate Christmas with Jul in order to convert the pagan Vikings. Once the region adopted Christianity, the two celebrations were merged into one.

To understand Christmas in Denmark today, it’s also necessary to grasp the concept of hygge. While the word is often insufficiently translated as “cozy,” hygge (pronounced whoo-guh) is more a state of being. To quote Xenophobe’s Guide to the Danes, hygge is “the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality, and contentment rolled into one.” According to one Dane, it’s all about “creating a comfortable atmosphere where you just feel at home.” While hygge can happen almost anywhere, anytime, and with anyone, some of the key ingredients are family, friends, food, drink, candles, and conversation. Christmas manages to bring all these crucial elements together at a cold, dark and dreary time of year – making it the Danish holiday when hygge is experienced most completely, in all its warm and welcoming glory.

To maximize Christmas’ amount of hygge, the holiday is a 3-and-a-half-day celebration in Denmark. It all starts on the afternoon of the 23rd (Lillejuleaften or Little Christmas Evening), when families decorate their Juletræ (Christmas tree) with candles, ornaments, and a star on top. Last Tuesday, my host family and I braved the cold and the mud to pick out, cut down, and haul back to the house the perfect Christmas tree. Pictured here are Lydia and Jesper, my host parents, and Rasmus, my host brother. Rasmus is going to college in San Diego after attending two years of high school there, and his girlfriend Nancy – a native San Diegan – was also joining us for Christmas.

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After decorating the tree, we baked traditional Danish Christmas cookies including pebernødder (pepper snaps), finskbrød (finnish bread), and everyone’s favorite, vaniljekranse (vanilla wreaths – not pictured).


The next three days – December 24th, 25th and 26th – are national holidays in Denmark. Christmas is celebrated here on the 24th (Juleaften or Christmas evening), while the 25th (Førstejuledag or First Christmas Day) serves as a recovery day, and the 26th (Andenjuledag or Second Christmas Day) gives people a chance to see the relatives they missed on Christmas. Festivities on the 24th commence in the afternoon at church. While only 4% of the Danish population regularly attends the Lutheran state church, 36% go on Christmas. We attended a 4pm service at Uggeløse Kirke, which contains a beautiful mix of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles and was built in the 1100s.

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After church, Jesper’s parents, Louise and Palle, along with Jesper’s sister Liv who was visiting from Bali, arrived to join us for dinner. Most Danish families eat either andesteg (roast duck) or flæskesteg (the Danish version of roast pork made with a special kind of pork rind) for their main course on Christmas, so naturally, Lydia made both. Other traditional dishes we had included white boiled potatoes, caramelized potatoes (brunede kartofler) specially prepared in a frying pan with melted sugar and a lump of butter, red cabbage (rødkål), and a brown gravy sauce (brun sovs).

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After dinner, we indulged in the traditional Danish dessert risalamande (from the French riz à l’amande meaning “rice with almonds”) which had been prepared by Louise. It is made out of rice pudding mixed with whipped cream, vanilla, and chopped almonds, and is served cold with kirsebærsauce (a hot cherry sauce). Following Danish custom, Louise had slipped a whole almond into the risalamande. Whoever gets the lucky scoop with the almond wins an extra present (in this case, a box of Anthon Berg royal Danish chocolates). However, the person who finds the almond is supposed to conceal it, forcing everyone to stuff themselves until the dessert is completely gone. As accusations of almond-hiding were hurled across the table, no one seemed to notice that Louise was very quiet during dessert. After the serving bowl had been emptied, she gracefully revealed the almond to be in her possession. While at first a bit hesitant to accept the chocolates since she had prepared the dish, she then shared with us that, after 84 Danish Christmases, this was the first time she had gotten the almond! With this admission, she proudly accepted her box of chocolates – but not before offering some to everyone at the table.


Following dessert, we migrated to the living room, where we all joined hands and began dancing around the Christmas tree, singing traditional Danish Christmas carols as we went. Afterwards, we circled our seats around a coffee table to begin the gift-opening. Whereas the opening of gifts on Christmas Day can be a cluttered free-for-all in the U.S., gift-opening in Denmark is very communal and unhurried. As designated gift-giver, Rasmus would select one gift from under the tree at a time, announce who it was to and from, and present the gift as the rest of us watched the recipient unwrap it and thank the gift-giver. As a result, gift-opening lasted late into the night, aided by the glow of candlelight, the buzz of Christmas music in the background, our stockpile of sweets, and beverages such as gløgga hot, spiced (or mulled) red wine with sugar, almonds and berries in it. Talk about a hygge evening 🙂

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After a day of rest and recovery, we were ready to celebrate one final Danish holiday tradition: the much-anticipated Julefrokost (Christmas lunch). Every year, Lydia and Jesper’s friends Jan and Annette host a Christmas lunch at their home in Albertslund, a suburb of Copenhagen. I was lucky enough to score an invitation, so the three of us arrived at their house around 1pm. We started eating shortly thereafter and did not stop until around 4pm. We were treated to course after course of – just to name a few of them – fried fish fillets on rugbrød (hearty, dark Danish rye bread made mostly of whole grains) with remoulade (a yellow aioli- or mayonnaise-based condiment similar to tartar sauce), æbleflæsk (boiled apples with bacon), laks ruller (salmon rolls), grønkål (kale), hard boiled eggs, a cheese platter with fruit, and a variety of marinated herrings (to quote Wikipedia: “a whole section should be written about Danish herring dishes. Most involve the herring served cold after being pickled, but also smoked, fried, breaded, curried, or charred herring is popular”). The dishes would appear on our table, smorgasbord-style, only to be devoured and replaced with more food in a matter of minutes. Drinks included Julebryg (Christmas beer), Prosecco (an Italian sparkling white wine), and homemade Danish Akvavit (also known as snaps, a clear, high proof, herbed spirit made from potatoes and historically paired with herring in case the fish had spoiled). The hygge-ness of a Danish Christmas lunch is such that new friendships are made as fast as new food appears on the table. Despite only knowing 2 of the 20-or-so guests before the feast (shoutout to Kirsten and Palle), by the time we left the party late that evening I had secured an invitation from Annette to join the 2015 Christmas lunch.

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Until next year, I guess… 🙂

3 Responses to “Christmas in Denmark”

  1. William Zartman December 30, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

    Vi ønsker dig en god Jul og at godt Nytår. Din forklaring var meget morsom. Uncle Bill

  2. I William Zartman December 30, 2014 at 9:17 pm #

    Vi ønsker dig en god Jul og at godt Nytår. Din forklaring var meget morsom. Uncle Bill ________________________________


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Rachel in Denmark

[American] Expat living in Copenhagen

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