Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Danes seriously know how to do Christmas. It's all "hygge," which is a word I hear all the time here; a word that we don't have in the English language.
Hygge: roughly translates to "a quality of coziness (warm feeling, comfortable, and safe) that comes from doing simple things such as lighting candles, baking, and spending time at home with your family."
The Christmas season in Denmark really is cozy. Daylight is limited from about 9AM-3PM, which means lots of time is spent in the dark admiring the Christmas lights, with a Christmas beer and hanging out by candlelight. Rasmus has tons of childhood memories rooted in Danish traditions.
We got to spend Christmas at Rasmus' Uncle Fini and Aunt Pernille's house in Bramming. Ras was excited to show me all of things he so fondly remembers. It was awesome to watch his face light up as he shared each one with me. Christmas is celebrated on the 24th here, with the last of the activities ending late at night or early into the next morning.
Many of the traditions are for the kids, so I was thankful to be with Ras' young cousins- Louie (11) and Felix (5); it made me feel like I got the whole experience. I am sure there are many more traditions, and I learned each family has their own spin on Christmas. Here are some of the cornerstone traditions we got to experience this year:
The Christmas Calendar
This one is fun. Starting on December the 1st, everyone gets a Christmas Calendar, and they are sold in every convenient store. Essentially they are lottery scratchers, but everyone does it, from little kids to grandparents.
And each day you scratch off the date, and underneath is a Christmas symbol like a reindeer, Santa or candy cane. If you get enough matches— you can win big! Ras was always up first thing in the morning excited to scratch his. We didn't have any winners this year, but it's more about the hope and excitement than the money.
This is a tall candle that you start burning on the 1st of December and there are 24 numbers on it, so you burn it down one number each day until Christmas.
There are candles absolutely everywhere in Denmark. When Pernille first came to visit us, she brought us four candles and lit them at our dinner table. I love that about Danish culture. We even had real candles on the Christmas tree.
Æbleskewer and Gløgg
Ras' family hosted a party for the neighborhood on December 21st specifically for these two traditions. Æbleskewer is roughly translated as apple slices, I'm not sure why, because they are more like pancake balls. You take the æbleskewer and dip them in strawberry jam and powdered sugar- they are delicious.
Gløgg is a type of mulled wine that is filled with spices. Fini makes his own very special and reuses raisins year to year. It is typical to have liquor, strong spices, and almond slices in the mix. You can drink it with a spoon which makes it all the more enjoyable!
I think I had three or four mugs of gløgg that night; I love red wine and I love it even more like this. If Christmas had a taste-- this would be it, I loved it! Both foods can be found in every city center and Christmas market in Denmark in December.
The centerpiece of this amazing meal is Flæskesteg, which is a giant cut of pork that still has the fat on the outside. It is then cut into slices, and you get pork with delicious crispy fat crackling on the outside. The meal also featured tender duck, and caramelized potatoes, and gravy. This pork was truly different for me, and I won't forget it. I loved this meal!
Some of the other side dishes were unexpected and delicious. Rødkål is a pickled cabbage that is also offered, I liked the sour contrast to the meal. And potato chips were also in the middle of the table in a bowl, which seemed out of place-- but somehow totally fit!
Win the Almond Present
After dinner, we had risalamande which is a rice pudding made from rice, sugar, vanilla, whipped cream and chopped almonds, served with cherry sauce. Now the chef puts a whole almond in someone's dessert and whoever gets the almond wins a present! It's funny to watch as everyone pokes through their dessert combing for the almond.
Rice Porridge in the Attic for the Nisse
In addition to Santa, Denmark also has a famous elf called the "Nisse" and I think each family has different traditions for the elf. However, it is very common to leave a warm porridge in the attic with sugar, butter and cinnamon for the elf to eat. In our case, the Nisse ate the porridge during the day while we were out doing activities, and Felix (5) was so excited when it was gone!
Dance Around the Tree
On the 24th after Christmas dinner, Danes sing Christmas carols and dance around the tree holding hands in a circle. I really enjoyed this tradition. It was fun listening to the Danish songs that Ras had been singing all December.
During the last song, the head of the house breaks apart from the circle and leads the whole group through every room in the house while singing and holding hands, everyone has to try not to trip over each other or household objects (by this time we've had a number of beers), it is really fun!
Santa Claus and the Nisse brought presents for everyone in the house, which was so sweet. And the bulk of presents are opened after Christmas dinner and singing around the tree. The children go under the tree and read the tos and froms and distribute the whole lot. First, the kids open presents by announcing who its from, and then they open them one by one.
After the kids are done and off enjoying their treasures, the adults begin opening presents in a circle, each time the recipient announces who the present is from. This was a new way to experience gift-giving, and I love the way each person who opened a gift thanked the gift giver; and all of the gifts were so thoughtful!
"Glædelig ul og et godt nytår"
All in all, it was absolutely beautiful the way the Danes enjoy Christmas. Ras and I also went to a Christmas church service on the 24th with his grandma and cousin Louie. Then we spent the 25th on a train a headed back home, so he could get back to work. It felt sort of odd that the 25th was just a regular day, but that is part of it. Many Danes use the 25th and 26th to see other family that they didn't see on the 24th.
I was really shocked by the number of traditions we got to partake in, and each one was special. I have never heard so much Danish in my life, and I loved being immersed in the language. Update on my Danish, my vocabulary is getting a lot bigger, but I can still barely string together words. The language is difficult for me, but after this weekend I feel like I can finally start to recognize context in conversations!
Christmas time is the best, and it made me appreciate the traditions I have with my own family. Traditions make the season. I feel so loved and rejuvenated after Christmas, and I am thankful to the Nicolajsen family for having us. Going forward, Ras and I are going to have to pick and choose which traditions we will take with us.
Last year at this time, I wouldn't have believed you if you told me I'd be spending Christmas in Denmark. Life is unpredictable, but no matter where you are in the world, it is comforting to know that love and joy can be found during the Christmas season.