Tuesday, 12 February 2008

A Traditional Danish Christmas

Nitoli decorating the Christmas tree. My grandmother watches from the background.

Spending Christmas with my parent's was a thrilling experience for many reasons. Firstly it was my first Christmas at home with the family since 2003, so that was long overdue. Secondly it was Nitoli's first Danish Christmas ever (although taking place in Northern Germany). Being a Christian she has obviously also celebrated Christmas with her family in Nagaland - as I was lucky to be a part of the previous year - but it's a different thing in many ways. To mention just one example they don't exchange gifts there, putting more emphasis on the religious aspect of the holiday. Thirdly, although there was no snowfall, we almost had a white Christmas, which is rare. Due to the very low temperatures outside plants were covered in a lovely white rime frost.

Frost covered plants and berries on the day of Christmas Eve.

In this post I'll invite you inside to experience a traditional Danish Christmas. Unlike the UK, US and other places the main day of Christmas in Scandinavia is the 24th. In the morning we get up and start wrapping the last presents, decorate the tree (which is always real) and other practicalities. Guests arrive around midday, or perhaps even the night before.

In the afternoon we go to church for about an hour, before dinner gets served at 18:00 (6 pm). As per tradition the Christmas menu consists of roast duck with red cabbage and fried potatoes (some fried in sugar and some in butter).

For desert we eat the traditional ris a'la mande, which is a rice porridge mixed with whipped cream, chopped almonds and vanilla. There is always one whole almond in the bowl and whoever finds it will win a price.

Ole and Nitoli enjoying a glass of Cava (Spanish version of Champagne), while waiting for dinner. This photo and the three following were taken by my sister, Rikke.

My "farmor" (father's mother in Danish) and Jacob, my sister's boyfriend.

Me and my father.

My mother busy in the kitchen getting the last stuff ready for dinner. In fairness it has to be said that she did receive offers for help, but at this point preferred minimal interference.

Finally all of us seated for dinner at the Christmas table. My sister Rikke is third from the left.

A look at the menu. The roast duck and potatoes are in traditional style, while the red cabbage has been mixed with other greens to make it a more modern salad.

After dinner, my father goes to the living room and lights the candles on the tree. We only use real live candles - no electricity involved.

The lit tree in all its glory with presents underneath.

We then proceed with the uniquely Scandinavian tradition of dancing around the Christmas tree, while singing Christmas hymns. In reality it's more like walking around in a circle while holding hands, but we call it dancing. To outsiders, this might seem like a bizarre tradition, and truth be told I've always myself found it slightly uncomfortable. However, it is an integral part of the Danish Christmas experience, and most people wouldn't consider it a real Christmas without this element.

I took a video of us dancing around the Christmas tree and wanted to put it on here. But the file was too big and after several failed attempts at compressing it I gave up. This is a snapshot from the video, hence the low resolution.

After dancing, typically around 22:00 or so, we finally get to open our presents. Some families have a very disciplined ceremony where everyone watches each present being opened: Not in my family! It's a free-for-all frenzy and it rarely takes more than 15 minutes to get through the whole bunch. When we were kids we would get a bunch of presents, but these days I'm down to about 6 or so (each of my siblings, parents, grandmother and Nitoli).

The gift opening frenzy is in full swing, with only a few lonely packets left under the tree.

We finish off the night with coffee, brandy and various Christmas confections made from marzipan, chocolate and other good stuff. When I was younger, I was not by any standard the traditionalist type of person. But actually, traditions aren't all that bad - as long as you're not too bound by them.


Rory Byrne said...

Thank you for sharing your Christmas story! I am an American teacher in China and am preparing my presentation on Christmas for my students. Your photos are so warm and they really brighten my heart!

Mari Kjar said...

I am American with a very danish last name-- Kjaer.

I wanted to learn more about the traditions of my ancestors. I found your page on google and it was very helpful. Thank you for opening your families traditions to me.

Merry Christmas!

Esben said...

@Rory & Mari

A delayed thanks for your comment. Glad you could use this post for something.

And yes Kjær is a quite a common name in Denmark.