Celebrating Christmas when you’re away from home can be difficult. Not only because you are missing your friends and family back home, but also because Christmas traditions vary so much from country to country. As we try to settle down we are torn between adopting our new home’s holiday traditions while staying true to your roots. Fortunately, Christmas in Denmark is so full of hygge, it’s hard not to love it!
So whether you’re making Denmark your home, happen to be visiting over the holidays, or just want to learn more about Danish culture, do read on!
Advent in Denmark
Most people would say that the Christmas season begins on the 1st of December. In Christian tradition, however, it begins with the first advent (Advent Sunday) which is exactly four Sundays before Christmas. Like in many other countries, Danes mark each Sunday before Christmas by burning a candle on an advent wreath (adventskrans).
The first day of December is when Danes break out their newly purchased advent calendars (julekalender), which is particularly popular amongst children, but adult versions are also widely available these days. Traditionally the calendar has 24 doors behind which a piece of chocolate is hidden. Every day up until Christmas Eve you may open one door and enjoy your treat. Today, many Danes opt to create their very own calendar by stuffing home-made boxes or stockings with small gifts.
An alternative to the advent calendar is the calendar candle. A calendar candle is marked with 24 days and burnt every day, often during breakfast. The duty of burning the candle often falls to the children of the house.
Danish Christmas Ornaments
In anticipation of Christmas Eve, Danes will get their house ready for the celebrations. One of the tasks commonly performed is the crafting of traditional Danish Christmas ornaments, known as julehjerte. Julehjerte are pleated tree ornaments made from paper, often in red and white colors. Some of the oldest julhjerte ever made were traced back to the famous Danish Children’s Author Hans Christian Andersen. Could it get any more Danish?!
Keeping in theme with advent calendars, I cannot very well publish this post without talking about THE julekalender. Krummernes Jul is a Danish TV-program which originally aired daily during the days running up to Christmas in 1996. The story revolves around a boy who tries to help Santa Claus and save Christmas before it’s too late. The Christmas calendar which now airs every year on TV2 is part of a long series of movies, loosely based on the books by Thøger Birkeland.
Almost every country has a tradition of Christmas parties leading up to Christmas, like the Finnish pikkujoulu, but the Danish julefrokost is somewhat more elevated. Literally julefrokost means Christmas lunch, but most of these now take place during the evening, often after business hours, and restaurants are often fully booked in the weeks running up until Christmas. If you live in Denmark, you may even attend several of these parties, e.g. one at your workplace, one at your football club, one with your friends, and so on. The food served during julefrokost is traditionally Danish and accompanied by plenty of alcohol.
If you are getting together with friends before Christmas, you may very well be invited to a game of pakkeleg. Originally a children’s game, it is also popular with adults. The rules of pakkeleg are as follows:
Everybody brings one or several wrapped gifts (usually a specific spending threshold is set beforehand). You sit in a circle around the pile of gifts.
For the game of pakkeleg you’ll need two dice. One after another rolls the dice and when you roll a six you may grab one of the presents from the pile until all the gifts are taken. You then move on to the second round of pakkeleg. The rules for the second round may vary from household to household. One person sets a timer of however long they wish (e.g. 5 minutes). Now, if you roll a six you may steal a present from any of the other players. Roll a one, hand one of your presents to the person on your left. Roll a two, hand one of your presents to the person on your right. When the time is up you may open your gifts!
Christmas Markets in Denmark
During the early days of the December, many Christmas markets around Denmark open their doors to those in dire need of gløgg, presents, and hygge. Most towns will hold a Christmas market on at least one weekend of the month and in the bigger cities, you will find them throughout the month. They are the perfect place to shop for last-minute presents. Our favorite is the Christmas Market in Christiania!
* Click here if you want to read more about the 9 Best Christmas Markets in Copenhagen! *
Christmas in Copenhagen
If you need to catch a cup of Christmas cheer, you can find it all around the city. After you have warmed yourself with a cup of hot gløgg from one of the many Christmas markets, go a little further. Marvel at the iconic heart-shaped Christmas lights on Strøget. For the ultimate Instagram factor, head over to Kronprinsensgade.
While you’re in the city center, make sure not to miss the beautiful decorations on Magasin’s facade and the iconic installations on the front of Hotel D’Angleterre.
And to top it all off and get into the ultimate hygge Christmas mood in Copenhagen should always be Tivoli gardens. Every year Tivoli goes full-out on its Christmas decorations and they are absolutely wonderful. From giant candy canes to sparkly Christmas lights, they have it all.
Saint Lucia Celebrations in Copenhagen
The Feast of Saint Lucia is traditionally celebrated on the 13th of December throughout the Nordic Countries. Although primarily associated with Sweden, the Danish Saint Lucia celebrations in Copenhagen are as unique as the city itself.
For a hygge touch, go and watch the Saint Lucia procession in Tivoli gardens. It is led by a hundred girls dressed in white and carrying candle lights while they sing.
For a less traditional touch, head over to Nyhavn. Every December on this date the canal is illuminated by hundreds of kayaks decorated in twinkly Christmas lights.
Danish Christmas Folklore
The mythological creature originally associated with Christmas in Denmark is the nisse. The nisse is usually described as a little person, no higher than one meter, with a long white beard, and wearing a brightly colored cap (often red). In Danish folklore the julenisse appears on Christmas Eve, knocking on doors and handing out presents. Their services are meant to be rewarded with a bowl of rice porridge.
With the emergence of Father Christmas (or otherwise known as Santa Claus), the myth of the present-bearer evolved. Today, Santa Claus brings the presents to Danish children, and nisser are often portrayed as little magical creatures instead.
Christmas Celebrations in Denmark
Unlike most English-speakers Danes celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December, Christmas Eve. Most Danes go home for the holidays and celebrate Christmas with their families. The early hours of the day are often used for wrapping gifts, decorating the traditional Christmas tree, and preparing the Christmas dinner. Many Danes will also use this day as an opportunity to attend a Christmas Mass at church before returning home and eating Christmas dinner. Families also often sing Christmas hymns or Christmas carols while sitting around the Christmas tree (or, traditionally, dancing around the tree!).
If you do not have family in Denmark, it may be worth noting that Christiania holds a Christmas dinner open to everyone every Christmas Eve, also known as juleløses jul, at Den Grå Hal. If you’re feeling lonely around the holidays, join people from every stride of life for a cup of hygge and perhaps some Christmas duck 😉
Danish Christmas Food
Now, if there is one thing I have learned during my first Christmas in Denmark then it would be this: Danes take Christmas foods very seriously.It starts early on with the Christmas cookies but becomes increasingly serious as Christmas Eve approaches.
Danish Christmas Cookies
If you’re in Denmark during Christmas time, keep your eyes peeled for pebernøder and brunkager. To me (perhaps Danes will disagree) both taste rather similar. They are crunchy little biscuits spices with typical gingerbread spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and nutmeg.
In addition, you’ll definitely up your marzipan intake over Christmas time in Denmark. The variety of marzipan products available in Denmark during Christmas is mind-boggling and will convert any former marzipan-hater, such as me 😉
Danish Christmas Snacks
Apart from cookies, Danes love to snack on other sweet treats on the days before Christmas, especially when visiting Christmas markets. Two things you most certainly have to try, are Æbleskiver and gløgg. Gløgg is a mulled wine, often served with raisins and chopped almonds. Æbleskiver, funnily enough, have nothing to do with apples but are little balls of heaven. In the most common sense, they may be described as spherical pancakes. They may be served with jam and chocolate, or just powdered sugar. They are sure to warm your belly as well as your heart!
Danish Christmas Dinner
No Christmas in Denmark can be complete without having the traditional pork roast or duck for Christmas dinner. These are served with red cabbage, gravy, and two sets of potatoes: brown caramelized potatoes and boiled potatoes. The dinner is then followed by the traditional Risalamande.
Risalamande and the Christmas Pig
The leftover rice pudding from the day before Christmas Eve (“The Little Christmas”) is transformed into a traditional Danish dish known as Risalamande. It consists of cold rice pudding, whipped cream, and chopped almonds. It may also be flavored with tangy lemon juice for a little kick. Finally, risalamande is served with warm cherry sauce.
However, the interesting part is the one whole almond that is traditionally hidden in the Risalamande. As it is served to the family, everybody will attempt to find the hidden almond and keep it hidden from the others for as long as possible. Finally, when the last bowl of risalamande has been eaten, the winner reveals the almond and collects their prize, a marzipan pig!
In Denmark for the holidays? Keep in mind that most places shut down over the holidays, particularly between the 24th and the 26th. Small grocers will be open in case you need some last-minute cherry sauce, though 🙂 Public transport is running on the Sunday schedule.
Now, what do you think? Have you celebrated Christmas in Denmark before? Did we miss anything crucial? Share your thoughts with us in the pictures below! Let’s stay in touch!