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European Holiday Update #1: A Danish Christmas or En Dansk Jul

So they’re all done! The holidays are officially over and winter is back to being just crappy, cold, dark winter again. All the cookies have been eaten, used Christmas trees now litter the sidewalks, and there is nothing to look forward to anymore, nothing to save you from the Seasonal Affective Disorder, nothing unless you’re smart enough to have booked a vacation to somewhere warmer and sunnier. Escaping the cold and miserable northern European winter is commonplace here and I've learned that the appropriate place to do that is naturally somewhere in southern Europe, the Germans being particularly fond of the Spanish islands of Mallorca or Gran Canaria. We’re thinking about heading to Gran Canaria’s neighbor, Tenerife (yes, that Tenerife), but my intended travels to exotic islands off the coast of Africa are for once not what I wanted to tell you about in this post. I mostly just wanted to tell you about my first Danish Christmas or Jul as they say in Denmark.

This year we celebrated Christmas in Denmark with the family and friends of my Danish husband. We spent five days traveling around the city and suburbs of Copenhagen, visiting family, eating, and then visiting friends, and eating again. Now, Denmark is a small country and the traditions there are strong and well-defined. As a non-Dane, I kept noticing these things, things that it seemed everybody in Denmark was privy to, like they were all in on the deal; the activities, the menu, the schedule, the stories, the music, the way of things. This obviously comes from theirs being a culture that emphasizes tradition, I know that. But, seeing it firsthand as an American with less of, or basically no background rooted in strong traditions, it's safe to say I was enamored by my first Christmas in Denmark. Witnessing what appeared to me as the whole country (ok, Copenhagen is not the whole country but you get the drift) partaking in the same customs was novel, sweet, and lovely. So behold: these are the adorable things I learned about the Danes and how they all celebrate Christmas:

  • All Danes call December 24th through December 26th "Christmas".

  • All Danes celebrate the entirety of Christmas-related festivities on Christmas Eve, December 24th.

  • Danes sometimes go to church service on Christmas Eve. The state religion is Evangelical Lutheran and the people are classified as Protestants. The ministers in Denmark wear a weird Shakespeare collar, which Wikipedia just told me is apparently called a Ruff. I had seen this curiosity on some Danish TV shows and was incredulous about it then, so to see it in real life felt extra special. A Christmas miracle.

  • All Danes have these dishes and these dishes only for Christmas Eve dinner: flæskesteg (pork roast) or roasted duck (or both), small, peeled, whole boiled potatoes, brown potatoes (small, peeled potatoes cooked in caramelized sugar), a cold red cabbage salad, a warm, spiced red cabbage salad, what they call brown sauce (gravy), and a bizarre, could-be-improved-upon version of cold rice pudding for dessert (I'm sorry but it goes against my very being to keep my dessert opinions to myself regardless of how culturally insensitive I sound). This is real. We watched a bit of a Danish television show depicting a Christmas dinner and, even in fiction, it was composed of these things.

  • All Danes hide a whole almond in the rice pudding dish and if you happen to be served the almond, you win a present. This makes for an especially quiet and thoughtful dessert eating experience as you gum the mush around in your mouth so as not to accidentally literally eat the proof in the pudding. ​​

  • All Danes hold hands and dance around the Christmas tree singing Danish Christmas carols after dinner. The tree could have real candles on it for this, as all Danes love candles. This is an especially hilarious experience for non-Danish speakers as you may be thoughtfully given the song book for the carols but as anyone who has ever tried to learn Danish knows, this is not particularly helpful in anyway whatsoever. I dare you to read Danish in front of a Dane. It will not go well. Reading Danish and speaking Danish intelligibly are two very different things as it is very, very far from being a phonetic language. But luckily, just smiling enthusiastically while everyone else sings is totally acceptable for foreigners. Here is a sped up version of the dizzying tree dancing:​

  • All Danes play a present game called pakkeleg (literally ‘present game’) that is way cooler and way more fun than White Elephant or Secret Santa. It involves dice, stealing presents from your husband, and refreshingly, it doesn't have to be fair. You can read the rules here.

  • All Danes open presents like wild animals at some point after dinner.

  • All Danes don’t do anything special on Christmas Day, December 25th. They might go out for pizza for dinner.

Other things I learned that are commonplace in both Denmark and Germany around Christmastime:

  • December 24th, 25th, and 26th are all public holidays in Denmark but only December 25th and 26th are in Germany. Almost everything is closed in both cities, except a handful of bars or restaurants and of course public transportation still runs on schedule everywhere because Europe.

  • Danes and Germans really like advent calendars and/or advent candles. These are everywhere, in every store and you’re a loser if you don’t have one or five.

  • Germans are obsessed with their Christmas markets and feel that they are really special. My impression was that they were just cold, outdoor markets with food, hot booze, and knick-knacks, but festive nonetheless I suppose.

  • Germans and some Danes buy their Christmas trees only a day or maybe two before Christmas Eve. When told that Americans typically buy them earlier and enjoy them for most of December, Germans and some Danes say that is because all Americans only use fake Christmas trees.

  • Danes and Germans sometimes like to tell Americans about America no matter the time of year.

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