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The Christmas Month

The whole month of December is dominated by Christmas. In most towns, the main shopping streets are decorated with fir garlands and lights. In squares and gardens, there are Christmas trees with fairy lights, a custom dating back to 1914, when the first Christmas tree was lit on the Town Hall Square in Copenhagen. In recent years, it has also become common to cover many other trees or objects with fairy lights.

Most Danish homes take part in the count-down to Christmas Eve, partly by lighting a calendar candle every day and partly by lighting the Advent wreath on the last four Sundays before Christmas. The calendar candle is a Danish tradition which was first suggested as something to make at home with the children in 1935, but since 1942 has been produced industrially. The Advent wreath became really widespread after it had been the motif on the 1946 Christmas seal, the special stamp issued for Christmas every year. With its four candles, the Advent wreath marks the four Sundays in the Christian Advent, which is the New Year period of the Church. The Church year begins on the first Sunday in Advent, which falls on one of the seven dates between 27 November and 3 December. Apart from the calendar candle, the children have one or more Advent calendars, which may either have 24 flaps to be opened one a day or 24 small wrapped-up presents.

Lucia Day

13 December, Lucia Day, is celebrated around the country in nursing homes and hospitals as well as many schools and day-care institutions. A small group, mostly girls, processes along the corridors while singing the Santa Lucia song. The girls are dressed in white and the Lucia Bride, who leads the procession, carries a wreath with candles. The custom, which is of Swedish origin, was introduced in Denmark by ‘Foreningen Norden’ (The Norden Association) in 1944.

Christmas Lunches and Other Christmas Parties

For most people, Christmas itself is a family event, but in addition the Christmas Month, as it is called, is also characterised by various kinds of parties, of which the most common is the annual Christmas lunch which has been held in most workplaces since the 1940s. Here the staff eat a typical Danish lunch, which on this occasion should preferably consist of special Danish dishes some of which derive from old regional dishes. The Christmas lunch is accompanied by beer and schnapps or wine. For Christmas, the breweries produce various types of Christmas brew, which is stronger than ordinary beer. At the Christmas lunch, where a lot of alcohol is usually consumed, people traditionally let their hair down and without risk suspend some of everyday boundaries, both in relation to the social hierarchy and generally accepted social conventions.

In many different contexts, people meet in a less formal way to drink mulled wine and eat apple dumplings. While the mulled wine is of Swedish origin, the apple dumpling is one of the oldest kinds of pastry known in Denmark, where it has formed part of ordinary party fare at least since the 17th century. Many families and friends set out together to cut down their Christmas tree on one of the last Sundays before Christmas and afterwards often gather around such a repast.

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Christmas Decorations

Most private homes are decorated with various kinds of Christmas decorations. If there are children, there are typically many (cut-out) pixies, but otherwise fir and candles incorporated in various types of Christmas decorations are most common. The Christmas tree, which is one of the most important symbols of the secular Christmas, is decorated either on the day before Christmas Eve or during the day on Christmas Eve itself. The trimmings are usually baubles, paper hearts and cornets, tinsel, garlands of Danish flags and especially candles, which may be either real wax candles or chains of electric candles. In connection with the wars against Germany and the awakening national consciousness in the 19th century, the decorations became dominated by the national colours, red and white. As far as we know, the first Christmas tree in Denmark was lit in 1808 and within a century the Christmas tree custom had spread to most Danish homes. By reading the Hans Christian Andersen tales that include Christmas trees in chronological order, it is possible to trace the dissemination of the custom in Denmark. They are ‘Hyldemor’ (The Elder-Tree Mother) (1842), ‘Grantræet’ (The Fir Tree) (1846), ‘Den lille pige med svovlstikkerne’ (The Little Match Girl) (1848), ‘Tolv med posten’ (Twelve by the Mail-Coach) (1861) and ‘Krøblingen’ (The Cripple) (1872).

The Christmas preparations also include the baking of various traditional cookies associated with Christmas and the making of various types of confectionery. The so-called pepper nuts can be traced further back than any other cookie.

The Christmas Days

Christmas, or the Christmas Days, are 24 December, Christmas Eve, as well as Christmas Day and Boxing Day (25 and 26 December). On these days, most shops are closed. An opinion poll undertaken in 1998 showed that spending time with the family over Christmas was important to 78% of those questioned. But for many people it is also customary to attend the daytime Christmas church service on Christmas Eve. This is so to speak the start of the Christmas festival and one of the few days in the year when the churches are packed.

In most homes, Christmas Eve starts with Christmas dinner, where the main course is roast goose, duck or pork with sour-sweet red cabbage and caramelised potatoes. The other important item is the Christmas rice pudding, which is either served warm as a starter or cold as rice à l’impératrice with cherry sauce as a dessert. In this connection, it is important that there is one whole almond in either the warm or cold pudding. The person who gets the almond receives the so-called almond present, which traditionally was a marzipan pig. With their dinner, most people today drink red wine with the main course and a dessert wine with the dessert. The warm rice pudding is sometimes accompanied by sweet light beer, also called Yule brew.

The second highlight of the evening starts with the lighting of the Christmas tree candles, whereupon people ‘dance around the Christmas tree’, which means that they walk around the tree holding hands while singing Christmas hymns and songs. Underneath the Christmas tree are the Christmas presents, which are then distributed. In homes with children, it may be Father Christmas in the form of a dressed-up member of the family, who brings the presents. In Denmark, the presents were originally brought by the pixie, the old farm leprechaun or household god, who dates back to the pre-Christian era, but was associated with Christmas in the 19th century. Father Christmas arrived in Denmark in the late 19th century, literally on the postcards sent home from America by Danish emigrants and others. He gradually took over the pixie’s old role as present-bringer.

During the Christmas Days, Christmas lunches are held, usually for the family. They include the same dishes as the other Christmas lunches in December, although the regional dishes are more prominent here. They may include cabbage or kale served in various ways and the associated meat dishes. These mainly consist of various kinds of pork.

Formerly Christmas began on the day before Christmas Eve and continued until Candlemas (2 February) and the widespread Christmas open house made the period a time of much festivity. Today, Christmas largely ends after the Christmas Days. The many different social activities associated with Christmas take place earlier in December instead.

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