The art of being meaningful without saying anything at all

Queen Margrethe’s balancing act in the New Year’s Eve speech carries on a strong tradition

Every New Year’s Eve, Danes across the country turn on their televisions at 6pm to watch Queen Margrethe give her annual speech from her office in the Christian IX wing of Amalienborg Palace. At the end of the speech, she looks the nation in the eye and closes with her final line: “God save Denmark.”

Dates back to the Occupation
Queen Margrethe’s grandfather, King Christian X, began the tradition of the New Year’s address in 1941, when his speech was broadcast over the radio on January 1. His son, King Frederik IX, was the first to have his New Year’s speech broadcast on television in 1958 – the same year that the speech was moved to December 31.

In 1972, Frederik IX’s daughter took over the tradition. This has become an intrinsic part of the New Year’s Eve custom, with almost 100 percent of Danes with their televisions switched on viewing the speech as it is broadcast live. She speaks of the year gone by, commenting on global events, Denmark and the Royal Family.

Dronnings dilemma
And every year, Queen Margrethe faces the same dilemma. She needs to be meaningful and touching without taking a stance. “It’s her big exam. How will she do? What will she say to us this year? Will she pass, or will she fail?” explained Klaus Kjøller, an author and Danish professor at the University of Copenhagen.

As a figurehead of the constitutional monarchy, the queen has an obligation to maintain an apolitical role in society. But as people stand facing the television screens with their champagne glasses held before them at the end of the year, they expect to be inspired.

“It’s not a sign of weakness, but rather, a sign of strength and a stipulation of the position of the Royal Family to strive to balance the political debate. That’s part of her exam. How does she gather the people? How does she give us common attitudes and hopes with what she says, without saying something entirely meaningless?” added Kjøller.

Taking the smart alecs to task
“There are probably many people that stand in front of the screen and watch, anxiously hoping that she will give us all a controversial scolding. The example that we always hear is the one about the ‘smart alec comments’,” he said, referring to the queen’s 1984 speech, in which she rebuked the unwelcoming Danish attitude, saying: “And then we come in with our Danish humour and our little, smart alec comments. Then we meet them with coldness, and then we are not far from harassment and other harsher methods. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.”

Many believed that the queen was involving herself in the political debate, and this was the last in a series of controversial New Year’s Eve statements that touched on Danes’ attitudes towards foreigners.

“What are we chasing? Is it happiness?” she asked the nation in 1975. “Nobody has managed to catch that by only thinking of himself. It runs away from us if we think that we can catch it without sharing with others – yes, without first and foremost wanting happiness for them. If this is true for us, here in our own country, it’s equally true among nations.”

Redefining democracy
In 1981, Queen Margrethe stipulated that “the sign of democracy should not be that the majority are right, but that everyone makes room for each other.”

These statements were made before the immigration debate was at the forefront of national politics, and thus did not inspire the controversy that such comments would have in later years.

In a 2005 authorised biography of the queen, entitled ‘Margrethe’ she reflected on the 1984 speech. “If I look at it today, it was incredibly naïve of me to say. At the time it made sense, and no-one could predict the developments that had started to take place. Only a few years later, I would not have dared to make such a comment. The subject became political.” In view of the political changes, the queen has had to become more conservative in her comments over the years, highlighting the importance of maintaining traditional Danish customs and values, according to historians.

The nation’s point of balance
As a queen, her duty is not to side with the majority in the political debate, but to create balance and bring the nation together through common interests. She assesses Denmark’s position in the world by describing typically Danish customs, values and ideals.

“It’s typical for us in Denmark to avoid conflict; a discussion should preferably end with everyone agreeing,” she said in 2005. She goes over the important lessons that citizens and the country have learned in a global perspective. “Over the previous year, we have probably learned something, at least about ourselves. We now know better what we stand for, where we neither can nor will make sacrifices,” she said in 2006 in light of the reactions to the publication of the Mohammed drawings.

It’s all about the family
In recent years, her speeches have become more community and family-oriented.

She speaks of her own personal life and about her family, making statements that everyone can relate to, without being controversial and making political statements. In the 2010 address, she mentioned looking forward to the impending birth of Princess Mary’s twins, which will give the queen her sixth and seventh grandchildren.

And at the end of the speech that is today viewed by an estimated 80 percent of the Danish population, families across the nation raise their champagne glasses to their queen to wish her a “Happy New Year”, before sitting down for their New Year’s Eve dinner. “She does it by being personal. And it succeeds remarkably, because Queen Margrethe is a personality– also when she makes her annual New Year’s Eve address,” Kjøller said.

While Danes certainly enjoy the queen’s annual message, the New Year’s Eve address is not a tradition unique to the Danish monarchy. Since 1957, the head of the Norwegian royal family has held a televised address on New Year’s Eve. Most European monarchs, however, give their annual address to their countries at Christmas, including those in Sweden, the United Kingdom and Spain.

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