Christmas for 2017 has come and gone faster than an ice-cream melts on a sunny summer’s day. But this year Christmas was a little different for me. Instead of sitting by the pool, sippping on champagne and eating my own body weight in king prawns, I spent Christmas with my boyfriend and his family in the cold north. And whilst the Christmas cheer was still abundant, there were so many differences in food, presents and traditions I experienced. Here are just a few Danish christmas customs that I found incredibly beautiful – but a little strange to an Aussie!
Christmas Eve, or Juleaften, not Christmas Day!
Everyone I know in Australia celebrates Christmas on the 25th of December – Christmas Day. It’s also the way that Christmas is depicted in popular culture. You know, when the kid wakes up on Christmas morning and runs downstairs in their pyjamas to see what Santa has left for them the night before.
Denmark is a little different. The major Christmas celebration actually happens on the night of the 24th – Juleaften. The family will gather together in the early evening to enjoy a delicious Christmas dinner, complete with flæskesteg (roast pork), perhpas a roast duck, every type of potato you could imagine, red cabbage and gravy. Santa (or Julemand) will make a visit to the house to deliver the presents to the kids while they are seated around the Christmas tree. As someone who grew up with the magic of waking up on Christmas morning to find that the wonderous Santa has left me something special overnight, I would find this really strange to adapt to for my own kids. But who knows – maybe it’s even better to see and talk to Santa in person!
Christmas is always fun in Australia, mostly due to the fact that it is summer and the outdoors are used to their full potential. For obvious reasons this just can’t be the same in Denmark, because I’m fairly certain that if you tried to go swimming the whole day in nearly sub-zero temperatures you’d turn into a human popsicle. But this doesn’t mean that there is no fun in Christmas eve!
Instead, there are lots of traditional Christmas games you can play as a whole family. The first of which is actually incorporated into the traditional desert – ris à l’amande; a cold rice pudding with whipped cream, vanilla, almonds and hot cherry sauce. There are pieces of chopped almond throughout the pudding, but there is only one whole peeled almond hidden in the bowl and the lucky finder of gets a present.
Another game I really enjoyed is called pakkeleg. Each family has pre-purchased and wrapped a bunch of novelty presents of no more than about 50kr ($10AUD). The presents are placed in the middle of the table and each person takes turns to roll a dice. If you roll a six, then you get to take a present. When all the presents have been claimed, a timer is set (about 10 minutes or so) where everyone continues to roll the dice and if you roll a six, you can ‘steal’ a present from another player. When the timer has stopped, whatever presents you end up with are the ones you get to keep!
You actually dance and sing around the Christmas Tree
Growing up, a saw a number of children’s cartoons where the characters all linked hands and began to dance and sing around the Christmas tree. I had always thought that this was just a way to represent happiness on Christmas, but as it turns out its an actual tradition in scandinavia!
After we finished dinner, everyone gathered around the Christmas tree with a book of songs, linked hands and began walking around the tree together. I wasn’t much help in the singing department, seeing as I wasn’t familiar with the songs, but it was so nice to be included in such a special time.
Schnapps is the drink of choice
My family are massive champagne fans and so naturally, that is the celebratory drink of choice on Christmas. But the danes are much more hardcore when it comes to festive liquor. Schnapps is what you will see decorating the Christmas dinner table in most families and it tastes like what I would imagine rocket fuel tastes like – bitter, strong, throat-burning fuel. Unsurprisingly there is absolutely no sugar added whatsoever, so I think it is an aquired taste that develops over years of living in the harshest winters of the north.
Luckily enough for me, my boyfriend’s family aren’t huge on the whole schnapps thing so red wine was the choice instead. Although I was forced to give it a go at my work Christmas party and I will happily never give it a go again. I think I would rather drink straight vodka.
Gifts aren’t extravagant
Perhaps it is the over-sensationalised world of social media, but I think it is quite common in Australia to give quite large gifts to family and friends around Christmas time. In my family, the whole gang would band together to buy one, specific gift rather than lots of presents from each person. But in Denmark the focus isn’t on presents, but rather instead on enjoying the company of your loved ones. Sure, there are some gifts exchanged, but the gifts are small tokens of appreciation rather than overly zealous expressions of generosity. This probably stems from the strong emphasis on equality in danish society, and the fact that it isn’t often that you show your wealth.