It hurts to type this, but December is here already. (Didn’t I just get on the plane in New Jersey?) Unbelievably, I have only 19 days left in this country before I head home for Christmas. In the spirit of the season, here is a post dedicated to the myriad of fun, tasty, and unusual Christmas traditions that exist in Denmark. More pictures can be found here!
As mentioned in my previous post, the Danes have some great Christmas traditions like the Crazy Christmas Cabaret, æbleskiver, and gløgg; however, those are just the tip of the iceberg. First of all, it’s called “Jul” (Yool) here, which eliminates any religious ties to the season. Consequently, Jul is much more of a party than a religious celebration——and let’s be honest, the US is not far behind. The difference is that the preparation for Jul starts as early as the first weekend in November with the release of the annual Christmas beers. In the photos, you can already see how the streets have been decorated for Christmas and the Christmas markets are popping up all over town. Every store is overflowing with candles, advent calendars (ironically, they love those here), and decorations. What really puts things in perspective for me is that many of our cliché images of Christmas, such as wreaths, evergreen trees, snow, Santa Claus, and curling up by a fire have their origins in German and Nordic traditions that date back a thousand years. That is, the Danes know what they’re doing when it comes to “julehygge” (yool-eh-WHO-gah…”Christmas spirit” is the best translation).
Santa Claus here is called “Julemanden” (YOOL-eh-ma-en), or ”the Jul Man,” and is said to live in Greenland. Every Juleaften (Christmas Eve), around 6:30 P.M., Danes join hands around the Juletræ (Christmas tree), walk in a circle, and sing a traditional song. The tree is placed in the center of the room and decorated with as many wrapped candies and lighted candles as the branches will hold——sound dangerous yet? I can’t remember what the lyrics are, but children in particular are encouraged to sing so that Julemanden can hear them and bring them presents that night. They have a huge feast of roast duck, flæskesteg (pork roast with extra fat), potatoes, red cabbage, lots of beer, etc. For dessert, there is usually a special rice pudding made with almonds (risalamande) that contains one whole almond; the person who gets the almond wins an extra present, but the point is to eat as much of the bowl before you reveal who has the almond. That same night, kids in their late teens and twenties go out clubbing around midnight to catch up with their friends, especially the ones they haven’t seen all semester if they attend different universities. This is known as “second Christmas Eve” because of how close Danish friend groups tend to be. Christmas Day is subdued and basically consists of a light smørrebrød lunch with family. Only about 5% of Danes attend church services.
By far the best tradition to me is julefrokost, or “Christmas lunch.” Every university department and business will have at least one of these on a Friday or Saturday leading up to Christmas——not having one is unheard of. Basically, it’s an excuse to eat and drink (heavily) with colleagues and to let off steam from the past year. Specifically, it is a chance for employees/students to say what they really think about their bosses/professors no matter how scathing. All of this is socially acceptable bcause of the infamous saying, “What happens at julefrokost, stays at julefrokost,” one that is often written directly on the invitations. People also sing a bunch of original songs about the year or something they can’t stand about their jobs set to popular melodies. DIS has one every year at the National Museum for faculty and interns; DIS refuses to have one for us students because it might make the home universities suspicious.
While we’re talking about Christmas, I spent a good eight hours today in Tivoli courtesy of DIS. Jonas was able to cover the cost of the entrance fee with our social funds, so the residents of RJK and Signalhuset only had to pay for the rides. I must’ve gone on every single one and took a ton of pictures to capture all the julehygge at Tivoli that I missed the first time I went. The photos speak for themselves. Tomorrow I’m baking Christmas cookies with my visiting family, so more on that next time!
So, why so much julehygge in the first place? My Danish Language & Culture teacher Suzanne described the Jul season as a kind of survival method for the Danes. To her (and now to me), this seems to make perfect sense given the cold, dark winter that lies ahead. Jul offers a kind of escape from reality with all of the over-the-top decorations, traditions, meals, beverages, and anticipation. The ideal pictures of Christmas we have in the US are actually quite difficult to see materialized in real life. For instance, when was the last time anyone south of Minnesota had a white Christmas, or anyone at all had a tree lit with candles? Here in Denmark, however, the “culture” of Christmas/Jul, rooted in a thousand years of history, is as real as it’s going to get because of what may be a need to survive the winter. Enjoy that food for thought.