Tivoli at Christmastime.
Suzanne Russell is an American artist, writer, and activist-lawyer who has been living in Copenhagen, Denmark, for the past 25 years. She is married to a Dane and is mom to two adult Danish-American children. She has recently begun to split her time between Copenhagen and New York, but will be spending Christmas in Denmark. –Ed.
Winter in Denmark is dark and dreary. From November to February the sun is low on the horizon. Denmark isn’t above the polar circle, so we don’t experience polar nights, just strings of gray and charcoal-colored days.
Because of all this darkness, Christmastime in Denmark is a welcome celebration for people of all faiths. It is the season when candles and shiny decorations are used to magically brighten up the darkness, naughty elves make mischief, and people get together to eat and drink special Christmas treats.
Christmas, known as Jul in Danish, is celebrated throughout December. Christmastime officially starts on the first Sunday of Advent and ends on January 6 with the Epiphany, the visit of the Magi to the newborn baby Jesus.
Christmas Eve, December 24, is the most important Christmas day, with an annual trip to church for one-third of all Danes. Christmas mass in a sparsely decorated Lutheran church is followed by a festive dinner, dancing and singing around the Christmas tree, and the exchanging of gifts. December 25 and 26 are also holidays. On December 25, most Danes attend a Christmas lunch, a traditional smorgasbord, with family or friends.
In general, Danes are crazy about candles; they light tea candles everywhere to create the cozy atmosphere referred to as hygge. At Christmastime, there are several other important candle rituals. A calendar candle is burned for a few hours every day to count down the days until Christmas. Four Advent candles are burned each Sunday in Advent to count down the four weeks until Christmas. There are special Christmas tree candles to light the tree, and these are also used in decorations. My favorite decorations are small Pigeon apples that are cored and used as candleholders for Christmas tree candles; my children used to make these table decorations for me by the dozens when they were very young.
Most Danish children celebrate the feast day of Saint Lucia of Syracuse (d. 304) at school on December 13. For the Saint Lucia Day procession, the children dress in white and carry candles or wear wreaths of candles on their heads. They march along singing away the darkness in Danish:
Darkness shall fly away
Through earthly portals.
She brings such wonderful
words to us mortals!
Daylight, again renewed
will rise, all rosy-hued!
Saint Lucia! Saint Lucia!
Like much of Scandinavian folklore and religiosity, Saint Lucia’s feast day is about the annual struggle between light and darkness. In Denmark, Saint Lucia’s Day was first celebrated on December 13, 1944. The tradition was imported from Sweden by Franz Wend, secretary of the Nordic Union, Föreningen Norden, as an attempt to bring light into a time of darkness. Implicitly, it was meant as a protest against the German occupation of Denmark during the Second World War. Saint Lucia’s Day has become a tradition in schools and other institutions ever since.
Danish Christmas also involves folkloric elves, nisser, who make mischief. The elves are believed to live in houses, stables, and attics. They do farm work and bring people good luck, but they can also be naughty. During Christmastime, houses, banks, and offices are decorated with cardboard cutout elves called kravlenisser, or climbing elves, as well as a myriad of other types of elves. And, indeed, practical jokes and silly pranks sometimes transpire. Warm bowls of rice porridge, risengrød, with butter, sugar, and cinnamon are, literally, put out to pacify the tricksters.
In addition to sweet rice porridge there are many other Danish Christmas treats. As a foreigner, I have to admit that I am not a big fan of æbleskiver and glögg—round doughnuts fried in a special pan and eaten with jam and powdered sugar, and warm spiced wine with almond slivers and bloated raisins. Even sadder, I don’t like the Danish Christmas candies and cookies very much: homemade marzipan confections (marzipan konfekt), honey hearts (hønning hjærter), fried dough cookies (kleiner), brown gingerbread-like cookies (brunkager), and button-sized “pepper nut” cookies (pebernødder) don’t excite me. But my kids love all the Christmas treats, so I feel that I have succeeded in establishing the Danish Christmas food traditions.
One of the biggest Danish Christmas traditions is julefrokost, or Christmas lunch. Apparently, most Danes attend three to four work-related Christmas lunches, as well as one to two lunches with family or friends. This statistic is impressive, because Christmas lunch takes most of the day and usually runs into the nighttime; it involves a lot of eating and drinking. Traditional smorgasbord-style open-faced sandwiches are made at the table with herring and other fish, followed by warm meats and sausages, various salads and, finally, cheese. Special Christmas beer and schnapps are also served.
Although I have to confess to owning (probably) Denmark’s only Martha Stewart rotating Christmas tree from Kmart, I really appreciate the traditional Danish Christmas trees. They are small fir and pine trees with lots of space between the branches. They are decorated with strings of Danish flags, small white candles, and cone-shaped baskets or woven paper hearts filled with candy. They are too delicate to be burdened with lots of decorations, so they retain a very natural look. The night before Christmas Eve, we put a small branch from the tree under our pillow so that all of our Christmas dreams will come true.
I have one guilty Christmas pleasure. Every year before Christmas, I watch Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. There is a five-hour-long version, but I usually watch the three-hour version. The film is about a Swedish theater family and is set in Uppsala, Sweden, from 1907 to 1909. The Christmas scenes in the film are old-fashioned and very Scandinavian, and the story itself is magical.
Every year, I enjoy the girl-power scene at the end of the film in which the theater director, Emilie, asks her mother-in-law, Helena, to be in August Strindberg’s new play A Dream Play. The film ends with Helena reading from the play while her grandchild Alexander rests his head in her lap: Everything can happen. Everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On a flimsy framework of reality the imagination spins, weaving new patterns.
Even though Bergman and Strindberg were Swedish, the film always puts me in the Christmas spirit and makes me happy to be in a place that has so many lovely traditions and such a rich culture of theater, literature, and film.