So says Celia | Jubii! It’s the Christmas month!
Hands down, the most miserable Christmas Day lunch I’ve ever had has to be the Burger King drive-thru meal I grabbed at a service station between LA and San Francisco. Not only did the menu lack Yuletide spirit, the weather was warm and clammy, and the decorations tacky. Even the burgers were apologetic. Nothing about it evoked one single happy Christmas memory.
The same cannot be said of a Danish Christmas. The Danes created the template for Christmas. Called jul – from the Old Norse jól – it actually refers to an ancient pagan winter feast. Devoid of dull religious overtones, (almost) untarnished by garish embellishments, the Danish Christmas is a warm, charming affair.
Christmas is the one redeeming feature of the Danish winter. And in the most commendable act of winter survivalism save from hibernation, the Danes stretch out the Christmas celebrations for as long as they possibly can. So much so that December is also commonly referred to as julemåned, or ‘Christmas month’.
And while in many countries around the world, the Christmas shopping season often starts before the Halloween decorations have been taken down, the Danish Christmas appears somehow less palpably consumerist. Having said that, department store Magasin du Nord went through 262 km of wrapping paper and 450 km of ribbon in December last year.
Of course, there is the same retail build-up and the non-stop advertising, but there’s also a special warm, fuzzy mood that envelops people. I guess we’d call it julehygge in Danish. Who can deny that walking around Tivoli or a Christmas market with a glass of glögg (mulled wine) and some æbleskiver (mini doughnut holes) doesn’t go some way towards banishing the winter blues?
For a nation that celebrates itself for its black humour, Danes approach Christmas with a surprising degree of childlike naivety, obsession, and total abandon. Perhaps it’s a matter of national pride. After all, Father Christmas is Danish and lives in Uummannaq, Greenland. Never ever try to argue with a Dane that Santa comes from the North Pole or Lapland – you will be shot down in flames (even if they don’t believe he exists).
It reduces grown men to little boys. My husband spends all of November looking forward to December. And between the first and last day of the month, every little hiccup in life is answered with a chirpy: “Don’t worry; it’s the Christmas month!”
Even my father-in-law, normally a traditional, no-nonsense kind of chap, brings out his impressive collection of nisser (Christmas elves) that he arranges and displays around his home without a shred of embarrassment.
I love the Danish Christmas and have embraced it wholeheartedly. There’s something wonderfully honest and authentic about it. There’s a marked lack of religious imagery associated with Christmas, because to Danes, Christmas is a celebration of childhood and goodness, family and friends, and spending quality time together.
I think it’s fantastic that we get a special Christmas brew with its own day! And not content with just one evening of anticipation, here we celebrate Lille Juleaften – a pre-pre-Christmas day. Even advent calendars here go way beyond the call of duty. A piece of chocolate behind each window simply will not suffice; Danish children get an actual gift every day.
However, I must confess that I have my limits and I draw the line at dancing round the Christmas tree. No amount of julehygge or alcohol can convince my cynical London self to let rip and enjoy holding hands while skipping and singing around a tree.
One of the most fun and memorable (arguably least memorable after several glasses of schnapps) was my first Danish Christmas, in Shanghai, with a motley crew of Danes and their foreign friends and partners.
Preparations began well in advance. Anyone travelling to Denmark within the preceding quarter was tasked with picking up various must-have delicacies: pickled herring; the correct flour and seeds for making rye bread; Akvavit; æbleskiver moulds; glögg mix.
I watched bemused on the sidelines as they planned their Christmas, the conversation peppered with phrases like: “It’s not a proper Christmas unless there are brunkager and pebernødder,” “We always have the ris a l’amande at the start of dinner,” and “Oh really! That’s not how my Mum makes frikadeller.”
The excitement and enthusiasm was not only touching but inclusive, and the almost familial bond that formed over their shared cultural tradition was lovely to be a part of, even though this was not ‘my’ Christmas.
It’s funny, but it’s when we’re away from home – especially around big holidays or festivals – that we often feel closest to our culture and embrace our cherished customs. The wonderful thing about a Danish Christmas is the fact that there are so many traditions to learn and so many opportunities during the month to get to know them.
So if you are in Denmark this year and apart from family and friends, celebrate your own holiday, but also embrace the local Christmas traditions – but whatever you do, avoid drive-thru fast food outlets like the plague.