One thing I enjoy about Denmark is that the season of Advent is taken seriously. The tradition of lighting one candle each Sunday in the four weeks leading up to Christmas is designed to slow us down a little just at the time when we are being encouraged to speed up. We may be told “It ain’t Christmas until Tivoli says so …”, but people like me believe “it ain’t Christmas until Advent is over”. Advent, in the Christian tradition, is a time of expectant waiting and longing, both for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and for the dawning of a new world. Advent is a really important time – a kind of pregnancy of hope.
Each candle has a different focus: the patriarchs, the prophets, John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, all with a vital role in the story of the build-up to the first Christmas. I remember as a very young child knowing that Christmas had arrived when we lit the fourth candle in the centre of our table at supper time. The patient (and sometimes impatient!) waiting made the arrival of Christmas even more special. Then, and only then, on Christmas Eve, the lights on the Christmas tree would go on (good electric English ones – not these Danish candles. You would get arrested if you used those in a block of flats in London!)
I was surprised to read in The Copenhagen Post last week the story of the fight over a Christmas tree at Kokkedal, and the resulting political fallout. Two things puzzle me. Firstly, Jesus is honoured as a prophet by the Muslim faith, so Christmas is something that can be shared across faiths. Secondly, the Christmas tree is linked more to Danish family tradition than to the Christian faith. And, in any case, it is a rather new invention. So the fight in Kokkedal is not between faiths at all.
Whereas Christmas started two millennia ago with the birth of Jesus, the custom of the Christmas tree developed in early modern Germany, and predecessors can be traced back to the 16th and possibly the 15th century. Here in Denmark, the first attested Christmas tree was lit in 1808 by Countess Wilhemine of Holsteinborg. It was the ageing countess who told the story of the first Danish Christmas tree to Hans Christian Andersen in 1865. He had published a fairy tale called ‘The Fir Tree’ in 1844, recounting the fate of a fir tree being used as a Christmas tree.
At St Alban’s Church in Copenhagen, we do have a Christmas tree. But we also have other important symbols. The christingle is an orange with dried fruits attached to it, representing the world and its gifts, and a candle representing Jesus. On Christmas Eve at 12pm, about 200 children pack the church to start their Christmas celebration, before they go home for their roast duck. And we do so round a simple crib scene, with shepherds, angels, kings and a little human baby. This is the simple celebration of the birth of a baby at Bethlehem that changed the world. And because we are all part of this story, we all come dressed up as shepherds, or kings, or angels. And not a nisse in sight! You are warmly invited to join us.
Have a slow and peaceful Advent!