One of the first Danish words taught to most foreigners is ‘hygge’ (cosiness). This state of warmth and togetherness reaches its pinnacle around the Christmas season – a time when Danes enjoy their many holiday traditions. From an outsider´s perspective, the Danish Christmas, known locally as Jul, can seem surprisingly unique
The difference begins with the name
The Vikings first encountered Christianity in the 8th and 9th centuries with the arrival of Christian monks and the increase in foreign trade. The first Danish king to convert to Christianity, Harold Blåtand (Harald Bluetooth), was baptised in around 965.
Despite pressure from the church to call Christmas ´Kristmesse´, the Danes kept the term ‘Jul’ – a variation on the name of the historical Germanic peoples´ pagan festival Yule.
Advent builds anticipation
The countdown to Christmas begins on December 1 as Danish children open the windows of their advent calendars. For 24 days, the children find a small gift, commonly a piece of chocolate, in each window of their calendar.
Advent calendars are fairly popular worldwide, but the Danes have an added commemorative tradition: special advent candles. Like with the advent calendars, the candles are used to mark the days left until Christmas. Daily from December 1 until Christmas, the candle is burnt down the centimetre or so to erase the day’s date.
Additionally, the advent wreath, a wreath made of evergreen twigs and red ribbon, has four candles which are lit – one for every four Sundays leading up to Christmas Eve.
Nisser, the Scandinavian elves
While some Christmas traditions invite the presence of elves or Santa´s helpers, Scandinavia has its own version known as ‘nisser’.
Nisser can best be described as little elves or gnomes dressed in grey trousers and red hats. Popular folklore says they have a tendency to be a bit naughty, so in order to pacify them Danish children are told to leave them little bowls of ‘risengrød‘ (rice pudding).
Cheers to the holidays
Many Danes will tell you the Christmas season doesn´t truly begin until the release of the Tuborg and Carlsberg Christmas Brews, known as Julebryg.
The special holiday brews are typically fuller in flavour and higher in alcohol content than the normal offerings.
Christmas is also the time for ‘gløgg’ and Christmas schnapps. The former is a special mulled wine that is served hot and spiced with raisins, cinnamon sticks, cloves and almonds, while the latter is most popularly created by Aalborg Akravit.
Full stomachs mean happy guests
From Christmas lunch parties to Christmas Eve dinners, food is central to the Danish Jul experience. A traditional Christmas meal consists of roast duck, pork or goose as the main dish and potatoes, cabbage and a variety of pickled dishes as the side-dishes.
Dessert is perhaps the most anticipated course of the meal. The most popular choice is ris-a-l´amande, a mixture of rice pudding, whipped cream and crushed almonds. A whole almond is secretly added to the dessert, and the lucky person who has the portion with the almond is given the ‘mandelgave’ – the gift purchased for the occasion.
In the weeks preceding Christmas, bakeries and shops start stocking delectable sweets and cakes. Common treats include ‘klejner’ (deep fried lemon batter), ‘brunkager‘ (thin gingerbread sprinkled with chopped nuts), marzipan animals and ‘pebbernødder’ (small spice cookies).
The Jul timeline
Christmas for the Danes can be a several day affair. The holiday begins on 23 December, which is known as ‘Lille Juleaften’ (Little Christmas Eve), with a dinner consisting of rice pudding with sugar and cinnamon on top and a knob of butter in the centre.
The festivities amp up on Christmas Eve with the decorating of the Christmas tree. While preparations for the decorations begin weeks in advance, the tree itself is not put up until the 24th. The main Christmas dinner is enjoyed on Christmas Eve and is succeeded by the opening of gifts.
Traditionally after dinner, the family dances around the Christmas tree and the gifts while holding hands and singing festive songs.
Christmas Day and Boxing Day are both typically enjoyed at home with close friends and family. More traditional food is often prepared and consumed as the Danes take time to relax and appreciate the holiday hygge.