I’m Danish, my husband is English. As we live in England, our kids are very much little English people and I’m not proud to admit that I have not been very good at sharing all the wonderful Danish traditions.. except one: Danish Christmas!
I love Christmas.. no, I mean I luuuurve Christmas! Everything about it, even the excessive gift giving and chocolate eating, is just up my street. So being Danish and living in the UK was, for me, just the perfect excuse to celebrate Christmas twice – on the 24th of December “Danish Style” and again on the 25th of December as is customary in the UK.
So these are some of the wonderful Danish traditions I thought I’d share with you:
The Advent Wreath
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. 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.
The calendar candle
Another December tradition is the calendar 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!
All Danish kids get one or more Advent calendars – or Christmas calendars 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 children’s excitement in a high gear. The more fortunate children also get a gift calendar consisting of 24 small presents, one for each day before Christmas, individually bought and wrapped by their parents.
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 singing. 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.
Old Christmas beliefs
In the old days, it was common to give the animals a special treat on Christmas Eve. It was believed that all animals could talk on this special night, and nobody wanted the animals speaking ill of them! Today some families continue that tradition. They go for a walk in the garden, in the park or forest and bring along small goodies for Denmark’s furry friends.
Christmas mass in Denmark
Many people attend an early Christmas mass in church before Christmas dinner. This is not just because of religious beliefs; many enjoy sharing in the tradition of coming together in church and singing Danish Christmas carols, as people have done for centuries.
The Christmas Tree
Traditionally the Danish Christmas tree is the Norwegian spruce. Nowadays many buy a Normann spruce whose needles last a little longer. People living near woods are lucky enough to have the opportunity to pick and cut down their own tree. Most Danes pick them up from sellers around the country.
Decorating the Christmas tree
The Christmas tree is decorated with a silver or gold star on the top (never an angel), festoons of national flags and lots of small Danish decorations. The entire tree is often given the final touch of white fairy hairs or scattered strips of tin foil, reflecting the light from the glowing candles. Georg Jensen is a Danish company renowned for its Danish design and especially for its elegant Christmas decorations.
Danish Christmas dinner
Dinner is served quite early. Most people eat roast duck on Christmas Eve, but roast goose or pork with crackling is also common. The duck or goose is stuffed with apples and prunes and served with boiled and sweet potatoes, red cabbage, 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 bowl and the lucky finder of the almond gets a present.
Lighting of the Christmas tree
The lighting of the Christmas tree is considered one of the highlights of Christmas Eve and it happens after dinner. Many feel that real candles, as opposed to electric lights, are the only way to ignite a proper Christmas atmosphere.
Dancing around the tree
After dinner, everyone joins hands and dances around the tree. Traditional Danish Christmas hymns and carols are sung. Then it’s finally time for the unwrapping of gifts. Normally, one of the children is chosen to select the wrapped presents under the tree and hand them over one at the time, so everyone can watch each present being unwrapped. After the last present, it is time for fresh fruit, cookies, candy and coffee. On Christmas Day, children get up early to enjoy their presents from the night before.