The Danes observe Christmas Eve. It’s the big event of the year. Work ceases in the afternoon. At five o’clock church bells in town and country begin to “chime,” ringing out by beats of the hammer against the bell, to summon people to worship in candlelit churches decorated with green. Home again, families sit down to Christmas dinner. After dinner, the Christmas tree is lighted and gifts are distributed.
On Christmas Eve the children are allowed to “stay up late.” Then, their Christmas gifts stacked at the foot end, they are put to bed, a young world transported into pleasant dreams. Where Santa Claus appears in Denmark he is called the “Yule Man,” but the Danes have their own gnomelike “nisse.” They have two Christmas holidays and usually enjoy a “white Christmas.”
Yes, the Danes hope for a white Christmas and often have it. Time and again you may see snow beginning to fall as soon as church bells begin to kime (chime), calling to each other from parish to parish, summoning people to worship. Snow falls in large flakes white and soft as swan’s down. When the sky clears, snow casts blue shadows. On clear, frosty nights its crystals reflect the light of stars. Now the snow covers the countryside and droops over the eaves of houses like white frosting overflowing on cake. Birds
would go hungry were it not for the thoughts which rise spontaneously in the hearts of good people, who then cut slices of bread into small cubes and crumbs and drop them out ofwindows. No, better clear the snow off the window ledge and leave the bread there lest the crumbs disappear into the soft snow out of the reach of small birds. In Denmark, farmers put out a sheaf of grain stuck on a pole. They have saved it from the harvest to feed the birds at Christmas.
Danish Christmas is steeped in old tradition. Christmas is the oldest of Nordic festivals. Even in heathen times, midwinter festivals were held around the shortest day of the year. Bonfires were made, and offerings, to appease evil powers. But gentleness and gifts and peace belonged to yule even in heathen times. And, to this day, some Christmas customs are not altogether free from the influence of both old heathen and early Christian tradition. Some old folks still remember the times when people made the sign of the cross before the bake oven and the yule dough and cast omens for the coming year.
A favorite in Danish homes is a book of verse in stiff cover called Peter’s Jul. J. Krohn wrote it in the days of our grandparents. The drawings are simple and charming and resemble those made by Vilhelm Pedersen for the first illustrated Danish edition of Hans Christian Andersen. Danish mothers still show Peter’s Jul to their young children and read to them the simple verses, for-as the first verse says–if mother now will read aloud the very simple song, the little verses will take wings upon her Danish tongue- For they are true for now and aye The old and golden words that say, In following one another: Like Father only few are found But never one like Mother. And the verses go on to tell of all the great expectations of children and the final revelation of their Christmas in faith and joy and glory.
” Was I Born to Such Glorious Destiny?”
To Christmas in Denmark in our days belongs first of all the Christmas tree. Hans Christian Andersen in his tale “The Fir Tree” tells how the tree is picked in the woods and brought into the home, where it is decorated with little nets and cones and hearts cut out of colored papers and filled with sweets. And with gilded apples and walnuts hanging from its branches! And with garlands of tinsel, flags, and lights and everything! “Was I really born to such glorious destiny?” the fir tree wondered. The Christmas tree is a guest in every Danish home, in hospitals, hotels or restaurants, and stores, and is raised in the public squares and tied atop the mast of Danish ships at sea. But the Christmas tree as a symbol of Christmas is relatively recent in Denmark. It was known in Alsace as early as the sixteenth century. And Goethe in I774 let his young Werther tell of the Christmas tree he had known in the home of his childhood. He thus established this Christmas custom in Western Europe. In Denmark and in Sweden, the Christmas tree was introduced in the early nineteenth century. So this symbol of Christmas is some one hundred and fifty years old in the north. In Denmark, the tree is decorated the day before Christmas, but in homes with children colorful paper decorations have already been cut and pasted or woven together during cozy December evenings. Then, when the tree stands dressed in all its glory, the little paper cones and baskets filled with sweets and the lights fastened, the door to the living room is closed and locked. But the children are not allowed to see the tree before Christmas Eve when all are gathered together, the lights lighted, and the doors opened into the radiant tree. Christmas baking is traditional in Denmark. Cookies of many sorts and shapes belong to a Danish Christmas, and among them are “pepper nuts.” The Christmas Eve church service is of the Danish Christmas observance. The service is in the late afternoon, before dinner. All work ceases, church bells peal, and people flock to churches festively lighted and decorated with fragrant greens.
The traditional Christmas Eve dinner is rice porridge sprinkled with cinnamon, and with a piece of butter in the center, and then comes roast goose stuffed with apples and prunes and served with red cabbage and small caramel-browned potatoes. The dessert is often apple cake-layers of bread crumbs, apple sauce, and jam and topped with whipped cream. Hidden in the rice porridge is an almond, and whoever gets the almond receives a prize.
Now dinner is over and the dishes washed up. Expectations are high. Father and Mother disappear into the locked room, light the tree, and open the door with a key and a smile. Behold the tree in all its glory! A silver star at the top, radiant with lights and tinsel and everything, and around the foot of the tree gifts wrapped in gay papers-But wait! It’s a Danish custom that all take one another by the hand and go around the tree singing some of the old Danish Christmas hymns, and among them is “Merry Christmas, Lovely Christmas,” to the tune of “Holy Night.”
The gaily wrapped gifts stacked on tables and floor are exchanged about the tree. Sometimes the “Yule Man” enters with gifts in his bag, a member of the family having dressed up as a Santa with long white beard and red cap.
But even though the Danish “Yule Man” in the likeness of our American Santa is not so common in Danish homes, Denmark has a similar spirit. He is a sprite and is called “Nissen.” The “Nisse” is much smaller than Santa Claus, which is perhaps not so strange considering that Denmark is so much smaller than America. For the last hundred years the Nisser (plural for Nisse) have attached to Danish homes. Today they are the lone representatives of the many supernatural beings who in old days played a part in the Danish yuletide. They are all that’s left of them now. They are given to all sorts of mischief-even as children at Halloween-but are good little sprites. They keep a friendly eye on cows and horses in the barn and on other domestic animals and are seen most frequently on Danish Christmas cards, often in the company of the house cat. They marry and have children. The old Nisse affects a long white beard in the manner of Santa, and all, old or young, wear red caps. They remind folks to pour milk in a saucer for the cat. But people are wont also to put a platter with the rice porridge outside the kitchen door on Christmas Eve for the Nisse, and the platter is always licked clean by morning. Only unimaginative people have been known to suggest that the cat must have eaten the porridge.
Is the Danish Christmas Nisse real? Certainly, he is just as real as Santa Claus, and everybody knows that there is a Santa Claus.
Denmark is the home of the original Christmas seal. Some fifty years ago Einar Holboll, then a post office clerk, got the idea. Jacob A. Riis brought the idea to America through an article in the magazine called The Outlook.
Glaedelig Jul is the Danish way of saying Merry Christmas.