Christmas is the most celebrated holiday in Denmark.
The Danish word ‘jul’ is derived from the pagan word ‘yul’, which means ‘festivities’. These ‘festivities’ are the what the people of what is now Scandinavia have celebrated as far back as the 7th century. They celebrated, among other things, the winter solstice – they celebrated how the days became longer. They did so by lighting bonfires, drinking a lot of alcohol and eating a lot of food.
Some scientists believe that the winter solstice festivals were in January, while others claim they were celebrated around December 25th, in other words, the same day as the birth of Jesus.
Around the 12th century, ‘jul’ became a Christian celebration in Denmark. The church wanted ‘jul’ to be held in honour of the birth of Jesus, and the clergy tried to change the word ‘jul’ to ‘Kristmasse’. They had succeeded with this in England, where the celebrations were now called ‘Christmas’, but the Church failed to get the name changed in Denmark.
The people of medieval Scandinavia also still insisted on celebrating their ‘jul’ with lots of drinking and food. The Church wanted to change that too, so they introduced the days of ‘Christmas Peace’, lasting from December 25th to January 6th (Twelfth Night).
In that way, the Danish ‘jul’ is a combination of Christian and pagan traditions.
In Denmark, the Christmas holidays last from ‘lillejuleaften’ (literally ‘little Christmas Eve’) on December 23rd to the 2. day of Christmas on December 26th. Unlike many other countries, our main Christmas festivities are on the 24th of December, where ‘juleaften’ – our Christmas Eve – is celebrated.
The Christmas calendar
For many Danes, the Christmas season starts on the 1st of December, when you open your Christmas calendar. Christmas calendars in Denmark are several things. There is the calendar candle – a candle with the number 1 at the top and the number 24 at the bottom. The numbers mark the days from the 1st to the 24th of December. The light serves as a countdown to Christmas Eve: You light the candle each day, but only allowing it to burn down to the next number.
An advent calendar can also be a sheet of two-layered paper with little windows in one layer and a drawing or image behind each closed window. You are only allowed to open one window each day. Christmas calendars with small cavities are also popular, concealing a small piece of candy or chocolate behind each window.
Many children also get gift calendars, where patient parents or grandparents have wrapped 24 tiny gifts for the child — one for each morning.
And then there’s the television Christmas calendar. It is a television series for children or adults, running from the 1st to the 24th of December. The theme is often one of some conflict endangering Christmas, but all ends well each time. Some TV Christmas calendars have achieved cult status and are repeated quite frequently, for example the 1991 The Julekalender (playing on an English/Danish language pun) for adults and the 1986 Jul på slottet (Christmas at the Castle) for children.
Nisser – Christmas elves
The Danish ‘nisse’ – a Christmas elf – is a character that can be seen everywhere at Christmas and is very much part of the traditional Christmas decorations. The elf was originally a kind of ‘house deity’, protecting homes and farms. It was important to make sacrificial offerings to the elf to preserve domestic peace.
However, the elf later took on the role of Santa’s helper and became associated with Christmas. But the idea of the elf teasing us, if he doesn’t get his offerings, lives on in the tradition of making rice pudding for the elf. So in some Danish families it is a Christmas tradition for the children to place a plate of rice pudding – knob of butter and cinnamon sprinkles and all – some place in the house, and ‘magically’ the pudding is gone the next day.
The Christmas tree
Many countries that celebrate Christmas also have decorated Christmas trees. But in Denmark, we have one special tradition surrounding the Christmas tree: We dance around it on Christmas Eve, December 24th.
It is actually not so much a dance as it is walking hand in hand around the tree while singing. Some sing Christian hymns, such as Et barn er født i Betlehem – a child was born in Betlehem – while others prefer Christmas carols of less religious intonation, such as for example På loftet sidder nissen med sin julegrød about an elf sitting in the attic enjoying his Christmas pudding.
The Danish Christmas trees are often decorated with paper garlands, glass Christmas balls, handmade pleated Christmas hearts and often also Danish flags.
The presents are placed under the Christmas tree, and in Denmark we open the presents on Christmas Eve, the 24th of December.
Christmas is very much about food. The Christmas ‘lunch’ is a great feast often given at companies and typical Danish food, like herring, roast pork, meatballs and brown bread, is served.
Christmas ‘lunches’ are also known for people drinking quite a bit of beer and aquavit, and it is rarely a quiet affair.
On Christmas Eve, many Danes eat roast pork or roast duck with white and browned, caramelised potatoes, pickled red cabbage and gravy. For dessert, risalamande is served, a kind of creamy rice pudding with chopped almonds and cherry sauce. A well-known tradition is the ‘almond gift’ or ‘mandelgave’. One whole almond is concealed somewhere in the bowl of risalamande. Whoever finds the whole almond in their serving – and manages not to bite into it – wins the almond gift, often a box of chocolates or Christmas decorations.
Many Danish families also bake lots of Christmas cookies, such as the small, round ‘pebernødder’, spiced ‘brunkager’ or the knotted pastry ‘klejner’ with cardamom, as well as homemade marzipan treats. These treats are typically small balls made of marzipan, nougat, chocolate and nuts. The cookies and treats are served all through the Christmas month or used as small gifts.