Christmas in Denmark

The Danes love Christmas. It starts as early as October, when the papers bring their first notices about it being high time to send your Chris

candlelit Christmas tree

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tmas mail to Kamchatka, Tasmania, and the Fiji and Aleutian Isles, if you want it to get there in time. This forewarning will invariably make the Dane exclaim in mingled surprise and joyful expectation: “Fancy, only three months till Christmas now!”

The next infallible sign of Christmas drawing nigh is a press notice stating that the Copenhagen theater, Folke-teatret, for its Christmas program this year has decided to present “Christmas in Noddebo Rectory.” This has gone on every year since 1888. If they skipped a year, the theater manager would be lynched. No one meddles with the Danish Christmas traditions with impunity.

A few days later the papers publish a reproduction of this year’s Christmas stamp. If it doesn’t picture a trumpet-blowing cherub, a dove of peace, or a church bell garlanded with fir, it will be received with profound skepticism. In any case people always agree that it was much prettier last year. The Christmas stamp, used in the cause of charity to overstamp Christmas letters in countries all over the world, was invented in 1904 by a Danish postmaster. Nowadays no Dane would dare post a Christmas card before making it unrecognizable by slapping Christmas stamps all over it. If he doesn’t, he is regarded as a coldhearted, cynical, anti-Christmas monster, who should by rights be banished to the uttermost darkness.

Next follows a front page picture of a ninety-foot-high fir tree in Grib Forest, North Zealand. The caption reads: “Yes­terday in Grib Forest the chief forest ranger selected the city’s tree.” By “the city’s tree” they mean the stately fir which all through December will stand in the square facing Copenhagen’s town hall, decorated with thousands of lamps, and rallying all hearts to the festival.

After these preliminary heats, which all serve to warm up the Dane and get his mind tuned for Christmas, there is nothing further about Christmas for some time. But that doesn’t mean to say that the Dane is not thinking about it. He is preparing for it in secret-and then, suddenly on a dark November day, Christmas bursts out in full bloom. All at once, as at the touch of a magic wand, three alluring letters on great, frost-glittered cardboard signs blaze from every shop window in the country: Jul! (Christmas!). The Dane knows no word more beautiful than Jul. It makes his eyes dreamy and his voice mellow. Even on the tongues of hard-boiled businessmen the word will melt, assuming the same blithe tones as those in which a devoted son by the sickbed breathes the word: “Mother.”

But the shops don’t just leave it at Jul alone. Oh no, they surround every display window in the country with a green frame of fir garlands; they stretch fir garlands from lamppost to lamppost, from one side of the street to the other, deco­rating them at suitable intervals with large papier-mAche Christmas bells and Christmas stars. And electricians draw long wires through the garlands, equipping them with myriads of little electric light bulbs, and when dusk comes creeping, someone presses a button, and the whole country is bathed in the light from millions of feet of electrified fir garlands. Be­hind the glass panes in the store windows Christmas gifts are piling up, and everywhere you see little nisser peering out. Nisser is the plural of nisse, a small, jolly, Nordic Christmas creature who is absolutely indispensable for the Danish Christmas. Although, so far, nobody has ever caught as much as a glimpse of a real, live nisse, it is common knowl­edge that they have their natural habitat in the country, more accurately in the lofts of old farmhouses. They are dressed in gray homespun with a red bonnet, long red stockings, and white clogs, and they are kindly disposed toward the farm folk, as long as they are not teased, in which case they may well upset a pail of milk or hide one of the farmer’s wooden shoes. On Christmas Eve they gather in the tower of the village church, where they help the sexton toll the advent of Christmas. They are extremely frugal by nature. Only once a year-namely, on Christmas Eve-they have a bowl of rice pudding brought up to them in the 10ft. They must be fastid­ious too, for they never touch the stuff.

1904 Denmark #1 Christmas Seal, World's first ...

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Every year at Christmas time the nisser descend upon the country like a nightmare. You cannot open a paper, a period­ical, or a Christmas magazine without seeing them; they tum up in cartoon strips, on Christmas cards, in toy shops; they are sold by the sheet ready to cut out and hang on the Christ­mas tree; they are hawked on every street corner as jumping jacks or little, fuzzy fellows made of red and white knitting wool. Noone can claim to be without them in one form or another. A particularly obtrusive, almost sinister species goes by the name of Creepy nisser, and at Christmas time you can see them leering out from behind curtains, wall plants, and chandeliers, riding astride picture frames and knickknacks. When Christmas is over, they come to an ignoble end, being heartlessly crumpled up and thrown in the fire.

But to revert to the Christmas decorations in the shop windows: apart from the little Christmas nisser, every single thing in the window is adorned with a little sprig of fir, a paper heart, or a Christmas star, and one’s attention is drawn to the fact that this is “the ideal Christmas gift,” be it a necktie, a hearing aid, a tractor, a camel-hair cummerbund, or a double-barreled shotgun. Among those Christmas deco­rations which, according to the experience of the window dressers, hold the power to soften Danish hearts, there is first and foremost the little white village church, made of plaster and placed on a large slab of cotton wool (to give the illusion of snow). Over the cotton wool a generous hand will have sprinkled some dozens of little ‘tobogganing Christ­mas nisser and some glimmery stuff, and the Christmas decoration is complete. You see it everywhere all over the;:’ country: at ironmongers’ stores the little white church (with :, a red electric light fitted behind the Gothic windows) is placed among kitchen scales, eggbeaters, and cooky jars; at the grocer’s it is slipped in between cereal cartons, date boxes, and canned goods; in the ladies’ underwear shop it is stuck among nightgowns, panties, and brassieres; and at the baker’s it is given a decorative site midst pastry and cream cakes­the only difference being that here the church is not made of plaster, but of marzipan. Only at the butcher’s may you look for it in vain. He prefers to go his own way, and Christmas­decorates his window with a pig’s head, a brightly polished red apple wedged between its jaws. To make it even more festive, it may be furnished with a nisse bonnet and little Danish flags stuck behind each ear.

Naturally the little white village church is chicken feed to the more imaginative chief decorators of the big department stores. They prefer to exploit the most up-to-date techniques of model craft, and with the aid of surgical cotton and papier­mache by the ton they conjure up enormous snowscapes that seem to be carved right out of the Danish countryside, with everything from picturesque windmills (their wings tufted with cotton snow) to commemorative, ancient Viking graves, topped with their decorative cairns (and a nisse peering out between the stones). Through this peaceful, snow-clad winter landscape plows the invariable electric toy train, crammed full of Christmas gifts and Christmas nisser. When the train has run a certain distance, it is imperative that it should disappear into a tunnel-otherwise it wouldn’t be a real Christmas train. Although tunnels are simply nonexistent in Denmark, where cliffs are an unknown geographical feature, the public demands that a long, deep, and dark tunnel is built into the snowscapes of big department stores-that’s just. the exciting part, watching the train come out of the tunnel. People will stand fascinated for hours on end, staring at the tunnel opening and getting a big thrill every time the lilliput train pops out. A sigh of rapture sweeps through the crowd on the sidewalk-there it comes! If the current breaks down, and the train stays in there, it will invariably mar the Dane’s en­joyment of Christmas; he will feel cheated, and he certainly won’t go near that department store for some time.

Toward the end of November whole forests of fir trees start sprouting up all over the .sidewalks, wherever there’s a little room to spare. This is the country’s supply of Christmas trees, but until a few days before Christmas nobody will even deign to look at them, and their vendors (often impecunious stu­dents) stand there, frozen stiff and blue, stamping their feet on the pavement, never getting rid of a single tree. This is not because people consider it too early to get hold of their tree; the inclination is there all right, but one happens to know from experience that they are slightly reduced in price just before closing time on Christmas Eve. And so you wait. Two or three days before Christmas you are suddenly struck by a terrible thought: What if they sell out, so there will be no Christmas tree for you this year! That would be a catastrophe. There­upon you rush out to buy one, even if it means paying top prices, because everyone gets his Christmas tree two or three days before Christmas.

An X-mas tree in Sindal, Denmark

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Now the Santa Clauses begin to turn up in the streets too. Disguised beneath vast bolsters of white cotton-wool beard, they curse everything connected with Christmas through teeth chattering with cold, casting un-Christmasy glances at passersby, and wielding their signboards with nisser perched astride “the ideal Christmas gift.” And now the gingerbread stalls appear. Only one hundred years ago gingerbread was a kind of luxurious national food in Denmark. Nowadays you buy it only for something amusing to hang on the Christmas tree, as Danish gingerbread is always made in the shape ofpeasant men or women, or hearts. To make them appetizing they have been coated with icing sugar, and yet, somehow you never get down to eating them. You may chew an arm or a leg off the peasant; then you’ve had enough. Gingerbread holds no attraction for the palate of the modern Dane-but do without it, never! It is an integral part of Christmas.

Stalls selling Swedish julebukke do a roaring trade all through Christmas month. A julebuk is a billy goat made of plaited straw, and you can get them any size from the tiniest, inexpensive fellow to hang on the Christmas tree to costly super species containing several loads of hay. Julebukke have nothing whatever to do with the Danish Christmas-they are a Sewish custom-but one day, several years ago, there was suddenly a man hawking them in a Copenhagen street, and as the Danes at Christmas time are easily lured to spend their money on anything, no matter how useless or devoid of value it may be, he had sold out all his straw billy goats in next to no time. Now the Dane buys ajulebuk every year, although he hasn’t the faintest idea what to do with it.

The only Danish Christmas vendors who have a thin time of it are the people in the jumping jack trade. For centuries it has been the custom for jumping jack salesmen to appear around Christmas, hawking their double-jointed cardboard men in the streets or from door to door. In olden times a sharp jumping jack salesman could support a wife and twelve kids. Not so now. Today no one would dream of buying ajumping jack. When the jumping jack salesman still faithfully turns up every Christmas, it is because he knows that he is part of Christmas, and that in spite of everything one wouldn’t like to do without him. So now and then you do drop a penny in his hat, while firmly declining to accept his jumping jacks. There is something impoverished and essentially small-time about jumping jacks, and for that reason they are denied admission to rooms adorned for the Christmas festival.

By the middle of December, letters to Santa Claus start pouring into Denmark by the thousands. For the most part they are written by English and American children and ad­dressed to “Santa Claus, Greenland,” and as Greenland is a Danish possession, the letters tum up at the Tourist Associa­tion in Copenhagen, where kindly ladies work round the clock answering them (possibly enclosing a little Christmas tale by the great Danish fairy tale writer, Hans Christian Andersen, as a personal greeting from Santa Claus). Danish kids never write to Santa Claus. They know perfectly well that it’s Daddy who is Santa Claus. They can tell by his voice, no matter how hard he tries to disguise it. Nor do they ever hang their stock­ings over the mantelpiece for Santa Claus to come down through the chimney and fill them with presents. For one thing, they know that Santa Claus is much too fat to squeeze through the narrow chimney pipe in one piece, and besides that, Danish kids never, never hang any garments up when they undress. They just drop the lot on the floor and leave it.

As Christmas Eve draws nigh, the problem of Christmas gifts can no longer be ignored. But as everything turns out to be so expensive, the whole population forms a mutual agree­ment that this year nobody will give each other presents. The kids can have a few trifles, but apart from that, one will buy nothing. This decision is stubbornly stuck to until approxi­mately December 20. By this time the nisser have systemati­cally undermined the resistance of Danish men, Christmas fever holds them in its grip, and they rush out to buy presents for the wife-everything she has wished for: pressure cooker, French perfume, coffee set for twelve people, aprons (when you can’t think of anything else, there’s always aprons), heat­proof glassware, cake dishes, powder compacts, bed jackets, and kitchen towels. Underwear is another sure item on her lists of wishes, but this is one she never gets, for Danish men are too bashful to buy that sort of thing.

Now the Danish woman knows very well that she can’t take her husband seriously when he starts mumbling something about “hard times” and “no Christmas presents this year,” and his clumsy hiding places (he is, for instance, naive enough to believe that his wife never looks under the bed) clearly reveal that this is going to be a Christmas-present year after all. Accordingly she hurries out to buy presents for him-half a box of cigars and a necktie. Danish men always get cigars and neckties-never anything else. While Danish women can write a list of their wishes several yards long, Danish men always feel strangely empty-brained when faced with a blank sheet of paper headed “List of Christmas Wishes.” Their imaginations fail miserably, and they can get no farther than “tobacco and neckties.” Her husband’s gifts purchased, the Danish woman goes on to buy presents for the kids, parents and parents-in-law, uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers, friends, and acquaintances. She knows no peace before her purse is empty, refilled with the family’s last reserves, and emptied once again.

Photo of the danish traditional price to the w...

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During the last eight days before Christmas, the Danish kitchen is a scene of feverish activity. The Danish housewife is now doing her Christmas baking. It wouldn’t be a real Christmas without home-baked Christmas cakes. In Denmark there are three kinds of Christmas cakes, baked by the billion every Christmas. First and foremost there is klejner. This is a four-inch-Iong, one-inch-wide cooky made of flour, butter,· and sugar, and fried pale-brown in a saucepan of oil. The singular thing about klejner is that you tie them in a knot be­fore dropping them into the saucepan. Another indispensable kind of cake in Denmark around Christmas time is bruni kager. A batter consisting of flour, butter, sirup, and sugar is flattened with a rolling pin to a thin layer covering the entire kitchen table, after which you use a beer glass to cut the batter into little, circular cakes, which you put on a tray and bake in the oven. Half a scalded almond is stuck on top of each cake. Finally the third kind of Danish Christmas pastry: pebernpd­der. They are small, round, pale-brown cookies about the size of a pigeon’s egg, and Danish housewives have been baking them for as long as there has been something called Christ­mas. However, as they don’t taste very nice, they are never eaten, but passed straight on to the children to play with.

Christmas Eve is without any doubt the busiest day in the year for the Danish housewife. In the first place she has to roast the goose. All Danes have goose for dinner Christmas Eve (although people who don’t like goose may eat duck, and people who don’t like duck may have roast pork). No other form of Christmas dinner is known. But besides watching the goose in the oven, she has a thousand other things to do. The Danish husband has a much easier time of it. He merely has to see that a juleneg is hung out for the birds. A juleneg is a sheaf of corn hung up in a tree, so that the little feathered friends of the garden may know that it’s Christmas too. Apart from that he only has to knock up a Christmas tree foot in his workshop. Now you may buy an excellent Christmas tree foot with your Christmas tree for a very small extra charge, but you wouldn’t think of doing that. Here at last is an item where you can save money, and therefore the man-about-the-house makes his own Christmas tree foot. Even if it takes him the better part of the day, the finished result will rarely bear comparison with his exertions. In the afternoon the whole family goes to church. It is hand­somely decorated with lots of candles, fragrant fir garlands, and a Christmas tree placed before the altar. And it’s packed to the rafters too. Normally Danes are not habitual church­goers. Apart from the annual Christmas visit, they rarely show up until it’s time to be buried. The service starts with the sing­ing of “Silent Night, Holy Night” and then the parson speaks a few words about Christmas. But the housewife hasn’t got the peace of mind to listen. She keeps worrying about the goose in the oven at home. Won’t do if it gets too brown. The kids have an even harder time sitting still in the pew, and Father can’t help thinking about all the money Christmas is costing him (nor can he quite forget the unsuccessful Christ­mas tree foot). The parson is aware of his responsibility-hun­dreds of golden-brown geese are at stake-and he makes his sermon a short one. The church is emptied, and through the softly falling Christ­mas snow people hurry to their homes. An hour later you are summoned to the table to partake of the largest and most fes­tive meal of the year. The table is laid with a white cloth and beautifully decorated with lots of red and white candles, little sprigs of fir with painted, white cones, and a long runner of crepe paper printed with little, merry nisser eating rice pud­ding out of huge earthenware bowls, while a pussy cat laps its milk from the same source. Christmas dinner starts with this rice pudding, called risen-gr¢d (rice boiled in milk until it takes on a firm, pudding-like consistency, which is sprinkled with cinnamon and washed down with julepl, a nonalcoholic, dark beer, chiefly distin­guished by the label on the bottle picturing a ruddy nisse with a red bonnet). As no Dane can stand risengr~d, and as one is disinclined to ruin one’s appetite for the goose by gulping down too much of this indigestible stuff, the Danish house­wife is faced with a grave problem: how to get the risengrfjd finished up and thus lighten the impending assault on the goose. There has been an attempt at solving the problem with the so-called “almond prize.” A large almond is dropped into the vessel containing the pudding, and the lucky one who gets the almond in his plateful is handed the prize, which as a rule consists of a marzipan pig with a red silk bow around its neck. The more pudding you eat, the greater your chances of win­ning the marzipan pig will obviously be. When in spite of this the risengr¢d is still never finished up, it is because the house­wife cheats and always manages to slip the almond into the portion allotted to the youngest family member to struggle with. Thus the other Christmas dinner participants know be­forehand that they have lost, for which reason they make do with a very modest helping.

The risengr¢d goes out, the goose is brought in. The goose is stuffed with prunes and apples, and with it you serve pota­toes browned in sugar, jam, and mountains of sweet red cab­bage. Christmas Eve is the only time of the year when goose is served in Danish homes, and therefore it is regarded as an occasion of the utmost solemnity, when the door leading to the kitchen swings open and the housewife carries in the great, golden-brown roasted bird. Her husband is so overcome by the situation that he volunteers to carve the goose himself, but as the skill of the Danish male in this exacting respect leaves much to be desired (his daily fare consists of meatballs or hamburgers, which may be carved without the aid ofpoul­try scissors), he usually makes a rotten job of it.


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He starts off well enough by stabbing a two-pronged fork into one side of the goose. Then he confidently raises the carving knife, and-amid the breathless silence of the expectant assembly-he aims it at the goose in an effort to sever the drumstick from its body in one clean and elegant cut. He never succeeds the first time. With a grim and determined smile he has another try. Still no result. The trouble is that he knows too little about the anatomy of the common, farm-bred goose. He clings to the naive belief that the only thing con­necting a drumstick to a goose is the crisply browned skin. The simple fact-that the bone he will be holding later, when he sits gnawing the drumstick, forms a jointed connection with the entire skeleton structure of the goose-will never really dawn on him. In his eagerness to get results, so that the feast may begin, he will make one futile assault after the other on the defenseless bird, while everyone sitting around him starts offering helpful advice. Furiously he calls for silence, throws down the carving knife, and makes a desperate bid to rip the drumstick off the goose with his bare hands. Still without suc­cess. At this point the housewife usually interferes and takes the goose away from him, but there are some Danish husbands who won’t give in before they have clawed the whole wretched bird apart … or before it gives them the slip, landing in the laps of their mothers-in-law, which obviously doesn’t count in their favor when the Christmas presents are handed out later in the evening. Having reached this stage, they mostly capitu­late, but to be quite truthful there have been cases of husbands who couldn’t be dragged away from the goose, before they had succeeded in blowing it to smithereens with the aid of an indoor firework. In any case the subject of carving will always be a grim chapter in the history of the Danish Christmas goose.

After dinner the candles on the Christmas tree are lighted. It has been decked with garlands of red-and-white Danish flags, hearts made of glazed paper and filled with Christmas candy, crackers and Christmas bells. Thrilled at the sight of all the many candles, you sing “Silent Night” and “High on the green top of the tree, Christmas shines in splendor” . . . and then, at last, the great moment has come when the gifts are passed around. Father vanishes, and five minutes later there is a knock on the door. It opens and in comes Santa Claus wishing everyone “a merry Christmas” in a deep, gruff voice. He asks if the kids have been good, and they answer, “Yes, Santa Claus!” And then he asks if they’ll promise to be good all next year too, and again they answer, “Yes, Santa Claus!” And then he asks if they’ll promise always to obey Mummy and Daddy, and the kids lose their patience and say: “Aw, cut out the fooling, Pop, and let’s have those presents!” The fact that he is recognized always knocks a little off Father’s Christmas spirit. Danish fathers love playing Santa Claus. If they had their way, they would go around dressed as Santa Claus all year.

Now the kids are given their toys-they may include any­thing from expensive electric trains to building bricks and complete cowboy outfits-Mother gets her French perfume, her aprons, and a hundred other things, and Father gets his half a box of cigars and his necktie.

The excitement subsides. While the kids fight over their toys, Mother spends the rest of the evening in the kitchen washing up, and Father lies down on the couch to have a well­deserved snooze, while his digestion tackles the goose.

Christmas Day is celebrated with a sumptuous Christmas meal. During the day the numerous Christmas cards from fam­ily, friends, and acquaintances are looked through. They are in a crystal bowl placed at some conspicuous point in the house, so that anyone who feels inclined can browse through them at leisure. The chief pictorial subject on Danish Christ­mas cards is, of course, nisser, but you don’t have to look far either for the little, white village church, dressed in its mantle of Christmas snow.

Boxing Day is spent eating, sleeping, and calling on the family to taste their Christmas baking and see if the other Christmas trees are as prettily decorated as your own. By now the Christmas spirit is slowly fading out, and you pull the candles and the little red-and-white flags off the tree and throw them in the cellar or some remote part of the garden. When Mother has exchanged all her Christmas presents for things she needed more, when the kids have smashed that electric train, and when Father has smoked the last of his Christmas cigars, the Danish Christmas will be irrevocably over. Now no one mentions the word Jut before some time in October, when there is a newspaper notice to the effect that it is now high time to send your Christmas mail to Kamchatka, Tasmania, and the Fiji and Aleutian Isles. Then the Dane will exclaim with shining eyes: Fancy, only three months till Christmas now! Yep, no getting away from it … the Danes love Christmas.

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