Despite thick snow, biting wind, fog and short winter days, Denmark is bustling with life: Christmas is just three days away.
The Christmas spirit was already present in early October, when large department stores displayed their seasonal decorations: rows of blinking lights and the neon outlines of plump Santa Clauses, snowmen and reindeer.
Denmark’s most important holiday, Christmas, has changed over the years from a day that marks the birth of Jesus Christ to one that celebrates family togetherness and the joy of having good food.
“But what has really changed is the gifts,” said 81-year-old Olaf Engbo Mikkelsen, a resident of Aarhus, Denmark’s second biggest city. “The size and number of the gifts that children get have grown so much. In my childhood, we only got gifts from our parents.”
The Danish word for Christmas is “Jul,” which actually refers to an ancient pagan rite in winter when people lit a fire, danced and sang their way through the darkest and shortest days of the year.
Today, the Christmas season kicks off with “Julefrokost,” or Christmas lunch, Denmark’s most popular workplace tradition. The “lunch,” celebrated usually in the evenings, begins in early December and ends on the last weekend before Christmas.
It typically starts with “Gloegg,” a warm punch of red wine, chopped nuts, raisins, and spices like cloves and nutmeg, laced with stronger alcohol like brandy. Then comes “Aebleskiver,” balls of fried dough served with jam and powdered sugar. A meal of marinated herring, baked liver paste, pork cooked with apples, fruit and cheese follows.
“I like Julefrokost because it is about good food, beer and taking a break with colleagues,” Henrik Joergensen, an engineer working at an insurance company, said. “But it has changed over the years and become a less formal event.”
As the evening wears on, schnapps, wine and beer flow liberally, voices rise and words become slurred, and the more frisky type of employees (usually men emboldened by drink) can be found chasing office secretaries in the hope of getting a kiss. Of course, the party is only for employees, not their spouses. Wiser employees leave their cars at home that day and choose to totter back to bed on trains and buses bursting with revelers.
Mikkelsen recalled that the Julefrokost as the Danes know it today did not really exist in his youth in the 1930’s and 40’s. “You also never went to Christmas parties without your wife!” his wife Esther exclaimed.
Julefrokost is just a warm-up for the main event, Christmas Eve. This is a time for more food, gifts, Christmas carols and dances around the Christmas tree.
“My favorite Christmas tradition is definitely going to church on Christmas Eve,” Lise Korsgaard, communications chief for an events company in Copenhagen, said. “It is not like the Danes go to church very much anyway,” Korsgaard admits, “but this is the one time a year that they do.”
Although most Danes are Christian and members of the Danish Lutheran church, there are services for Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Anglican denominations in Copenhagen.
“Everyone is dressed up. Everyone is singing songs,” Korsgaard said. “As the service is in the afternoon, it kick-starts your evening.”
The highlight of the evening is Christmas dinner. A feast for the senses, the dinner could become a problem for vegetarians: meat dominates the menu, with roasted pork, goose, duck and turkey.
“Although the usual food for Christmas dinner is goose, duck or pork,” Joergensen said, “where I come from, in Bornholm [a small island in southeast Denmark], we have our salted herring.”
He said the traditional way to prepare herring in his hometown was to salt them for three weeks in a barrel, then wash them in fresh water, and fillet and roast them. A strong sauce of vinegar boiled with sugar is then liberally poured over the roasted herring. Tasty, perhaps, but not for the faint-hearted.
“We slaughtered a pig ourselves a few days before Christmas. We boiled or fried it, and made black pudding and ‘Sylte,’ a dish made from meat scraped from the pig’s head,” Mikkelsen’s wife Esther, who grew up in the country, said. As there was no easy access to refrigerators at the time, the pig or goose could only be prepared a couple of days before it was eaten. “The week before Christmas was busy,” Esther remembered. “We were cooking, baking and washing our clothes for the big day.”
Other parts of Denmark also have their own food specialties. White cabbage baked with cream and butter as well as Sylte are two popular dishes on the Danish peninsula, Jutland. Cookies baked with pig fat are eaten in Soenderjylland in southern Jutland, and “Medister” sausage on the island of Fyn.
The meal is usually accompanied with red cabbage cooked with grated apples, boiled potatoes, and the infamous “Brunede Kartofler,” or potatoes fried with sugar.
Regular beer, slightly stronger Christmas beer brewed specially for the season, and red wine go with the meal.
The dessert is often a rice pudding with almonds, the so-called “Ris a la Mande.” Traditionally, a single almond is buried deep in the pudding. The first in the family who finds it wins a gift.
The origin of this rite dates back to the time when Denmark was a poor country and most people could not afford meat and only ate rice porridge with butter for Christmas. By urging children to eat quickly and find the almond, mothers made sure they eat their porridge, fill their stomachs, and stop clamoring for delicacies like duck.
Another theory is that the pudding is a relic from the time when children left a small bowl of rice porridge and butter outside their homes to offer thanks to the “Nisser,” little elves with red hats, wooden shoes, gray coats and long beards. The Nisser were believed to protect farms and homes and secure the annual harvest.
The Mikkelsens recalled they did not hear much about Santa Claus in their youth. In fact, even the Nisser had already been falling out of fashion. It was only their parents’ generation that was serious about leaving porridge out for them.
Still, Danish children enjoy eating Ris a la Mande to this day.
When dinner is over, the Christmas tree becomes the focus of festivities, as Danes sit around it exchanging gifts, walk around it hand-in-hand, sing carols and dance all evening.
The Christmas tree is a pagan tradition which originated in Germany. The tree is typically decorated with flying angels, tinsel, shiny balls (which represent forest apples, an ancient fertility symbol), fairy lights, candles and stars. Many Danes also attach red-and-white Danish national flags to their trees.
When it is all over, Danes look forward to hangovers and another round of partying on New Year’s Eve.