Christmas Around the World — Denmark
Do you wish the Christmas celebration lasted for more than one day? For the people of Denmark the celebration of Christmas lasts for three days. The preparations for this celebration begin on December 1 following many well–loved and well–kept traditions. Here we will explore the Danish customs of Christmas.
Christmas in Denmark is a family affair. Each member of the family performs tasks cleaning and preparing the house for the special day. Making and repairing decorations used to adorn the house and the Christmas tree is a family work of art. All in all, Christmas is a family celebration enjoyed by the whole family from the oldest grandparent to the youngest child.
Preparations for the Christmas celebration begin on December 1. In every house the family brings out their Christmas tree ornaments. They carefully examine each handmade ornament. Broken ornaments are repaired; smashed ornaments thrown away. When the last ornament is repaired the ornaments are returned to storage until time to decorate the Christmas tree.
Like children everywhere Danish children get excited with the anticipation of the Christmas celebration. So, when December 1 rolls around, out comes the advent candle and one or more advent calendars. Advent candles have marks on them one for each day of December leading up to Christmas. At some point each day, a family member lights the candle. The candle is allowed to burn to the next mark but no further until the candle is allowed to burn down to the final mark Christmas morning.
Advent calendars may be homemade or store–bought, simple or elaborate. Some may have only windows to open revealing a verse or saying about Christmas. Others may include cookies, toys, small gifts, candles, candy, or gum for the child fortunate enough to expose the day's goodies. A couple Danish television stations produce a special advent calendar in the form of a Christmas show that is divided into twenty–four episodes. These shows are like The Cinnamon Bear, Jonathon Thomas And His Christmas On The Moon, and Jump-Jump And The Ice Queen radio shows produced in the United States during the 1930's and 1940's.
Religious families hang an advent wreath above their dining room table or set it on the table like a centerpiece on the fourth Sunday before Christmas for their Advent celebration. The advent wreath is made of evergreen boughs with four tall, slender white or red candles. One candle is lit each Sunday of Advent until all four candles are lit on the final Sunday of Advent (some may have a fifth candle that is lit on Christmas Eve). Churches celebrate Advent with special services corresponding with the lighting of each candle.
Tradition is very important to the Danish people and that includes their Christmas traditions. In the weeks prior to Christmas the family works together giving the house and yard a thorough cleaning. Curtains are cleaned, windows washed, floors scrubbed, the best dishes washed, and the silver and brass polished.
When the cleaning is finished then the baking begins. Cookies, cakes, and pastries in abundance are baked both to eat and to give away. In Denmark it is believed that if a visitor leaves your home without being fed or given a tray of goodies, he will carry away the Christmas spirit. No one in Denmark wants the Christmas spirit to leave their home.
Homes in Denmark are decorated from top to bottom. Usually in mid–December family and friends gather for "Cut and Paste Day," a day to make new handmade ornaments. Hearts, woven heart baskets, Danish flags, paper cones (to be filled with candies and nuts), three-dimensional stars, nisse (made with yarn) pine cone ornaments, little drums, and wooden figures are among the favorite handmade ornaments made on "Cut and Paste Day." Most, if not all of these ornaments, will be red and/or white in color just like the Danish flag.
Most houses are decorated with a wide variety of paper chains, Christmas mobiles, wall hangings, flags, garlands, Julenisser (Denmark's Christmas gnome), evergreen boughs, mistletoe, holly, and pine cones. Candles are a must when decorating a Danish home. Every Christmas season in Denmark thousands of candles are used for decorating. Should a family decide to decorate the outside of their home it will be with white lights, never multicolored ones.
Even cities, towns, and villages get into the Christmas spirit decorating their streets and lightposts with evergreen garlands and white lights. Giant papier–mache hearts hang over the streets, and a tall lighted Christmas tree is set up in the town hall square.
The busiest day of the Christmas season is December 23, also known as lille Juleaften. A last–minute tidying of the house is quickly done. Gifts are painstakingly wrapped. Preparations for the sumptuous Christmas Eve dinner begin. And the Christmas tree is decorated.
Christmas trees, and import from Germany, first appeared in Denmark in 1808 in the city of Holsteinsborg. Even though they may be purchased days before Christmas, they are never put up until lille Juleaften. Many trees are purchased in flower markets while other greenery is purchased to adorn the Christmas Eve table. Other trees may be acquired on street corner markets. On December 23 the tree is brought into the house and decorated by the parents or older siblings behind closed (and maybe even locked) doors. Small children are not allowed to see the tree until the big celebration after Christmas Eve dinner. The tree is covered with many handmade ornaments mostly red and white. Many candles are also put on the tree. Finally the tree is topped with a star, never an angel.
Where lille Juleaften is the busiest day of the season, Juleaften is the most important day of the season. Many wonderful odors fill the house as the Christmas Eve dinner cooks. Pets, farm animals, and wild birds are not forgotten on this wonderful day. They get extra portions of food, too. Children hang sheaves of grain for the birds. The more birds that eat grain from your sheaf the better your year will be.
At 4:00 p.m. church bells ring, announcing the start of the Christmas celebration. All businesses and stores close, and families prepare to go to a candlelight church service. These services are fairly short as the pastors know the goose that will be the star of the feast is cooking at home. The family returns home with mouths watering for the wonder feast to come. A candle is placed in the window as a welcome to passersby because nobody should go hungry on Juleaften. The table is set with a special Christmas cloth and the family's best dishes and silver and a centerpiece made of fresh greenery and red and white candles. In some homes the table may be set with two tall candles, one on either end. These candles are called the husband and wife candles. It is said that the one whose candle burns the longest will outlive the other.
The Christmas Eve dinner starts with the children placing a bowl of rice porridge in the attic or barn loft for the Julenisse. Julenisse or nisse (nisser plural) are short, rather gruff gnomes. They wear home–spun clothes, a red cap, and a long gray beard. If they do not get their Christmas porridge, it is said that they get very grumpy and possibly dangerous. Much like Santa Claus in the west nisse impersonators appear all over Denmark during the Christmas season.
The Christmas Eve dinner begins with risengrod, rice mixed with cream and served warm with a sprinkle of cinnamon. A whole almond is hidden in the porridge, and the finder of the almond gets a special gift, often a marzipan treat. Families who choose not to begin dinner with risengrod may end dinner with ris a l'amande, a cold rice pudding served with whipped cream, chopped almonds, and a cherry or raspberry sauce. Popular foods found on a Danish Christmas Eve table include roast goose, pork, venison, carmel browned potatoes, boiled potatoes and gravy, rodkaal (red cabbage prepared with a sweet-sour sauce), and cucumber salad. Desserts may include ris a l'amande, rombudding (a creamy rum pudding served with chilled raspberry sauce), or aeblekage (a rich apple crumb cake served with whipped cream).
After the sumptuous feast is over the Christmas tree is lighted and revealed to the delight of the children. The family joins hands around the Christmas tree to sing carols as they march around the tree. After singing every last carol they can think of one of the family members, often the father, leaves the room. Moments later he returns as Julemand, the Danish version of Santa Claus, with a sack full of gifts for the children. The opening of gifts proceeds slowly. Only one gift at a time can be opened at a time. After the gifts are opened Christmas cards may be opened and passed around, but some families wait until Christmas day to open their cards.
In Denmark the Christmas celebration is spread over two days, December 25 Christmas Day and December 26 known as Second Christmas Day. While the immediate family celebration takes place on Juleaften, visiting extended family and friends occurs on Christmas Day and Second Christmas Day. These trips to extended family may even involve a horse–drawn sleigh.
On Christmas morning some families attend a Christmas morning church service. Once again on both days lavish meals are served including leftovers from the Christmas Eve meal, meatballs, marinated herring, caviar, shrimp, cold roast pork, salads, liver pate, head cheese, cold meats, sausage, various cheeses and crackers, and a wide assortment of bread. After the meal, to work off some of the calories, many families may be seen taking long walks in the snow, going ice skating, or cross-country skiing. Children enjoy playing in the snow, making snowmen and snow angels, and sledding. If it happens to be a green Christmas bike riding is the sport of choice. In the cities, even though the stores are closed, people enjoy strolling through the shopping district gazing at the Christmas window displays in the store windows. On December 26 some people attend a Christmas play or a premiere at a local theater.
The Danish people love Christmas. They love their Christmas traditions. And all this is evident as they celebrate the Christmas season and especially Juleaften, Christmas Day, and Second Christmas Day.
Christmas Seals: The purchasing of Christmas seals to raise money to treat children with tuberculosis began in Denmark. In 1903, Danish Postal clerk Einar Holboell looked at all the Christmas cards and mail going through the post office and thought what if people could purchase a Christmas "stamp" to place on their packages. He designed the first Christmas seal, had them printed, and sold them raising much money for the fight against tuberculosis thus beginning the beloved custom of purchasing Christmas seals. Norway and Sweden were the first countries to adopt this custom followed by the United States in 1907.
Collectible Christmas plates: In 1895, the porcelain company Bing and Grondahl decided to make a special Christmas plate. It was to be colored blue and white, involving one of the more complicated processes in plate–making. On Christmas Eve the company made that plate a true collectible by destroying the mold. Every Christmas since then Bing and Grondahl has created limited edition Christmas plates breaking the molds for the plates on Christmas Eve. In 1908 Denmark's oldest porcelain maker, Royal Copenhagen, started making its own Christmas plates following the same processes used by Bing and Grondahl. And like Bing and Grondahl, Royal Copenhagen breaks their molds on Christmas Eve. These plates have become the most sought after plates by plate collectors worldwide.