Christmas in Denmark is called Jul and is all about embracing tradition, spending quality time with family, and enjoying delicious food.
Danish Christmas isn’t as commercialized as American, and most people celebrate it at home – but not necessarily quietly.
Danes don’t go caroling, don’t eat Christmas fruitcakes, and Danish Santa doesn’t live at the North Pole. Many Danish Christmas customs have pagan roots, and most are shared with other Scandinavian countries.
Danes celebrate Christmas on December 24 with an abundance of traditional food, drinks, gifts, and games.
If you ever are in Denmark at Christmas time, visit atmospheric Christmas markets and stack on necessities because all stores will be shut.
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The Christmas season in Denmark commences on the first Advent that falls on the Sunday nearest to November 30. The Advent period covers four Sundays before Christmas.
Each Sunday, one candle is lit up, symbolizing hope, love, joy, and peace. Americans typically place the candles in an evergreen wreath, and some Danes also display Advent wreaths in their homes.
However, most Danes prefer to place the candles in a candle holder designed to resemble a log, decorated with pinecones, spruce branches, and berries. This custom stems from the pagan practice of burning a log during the winter solstice festival Yule.
Three candles are traditionally lilac and one pink, but many people nowadays opt for red or white. On the last Sunday before Christmas, all four candles are lit up.
Advent calendars are also popular in Denmark, featuring a small gift for every day of the Advent season.
Danes are pretty conservative when it comes to Christmas decorations. Danish homes are typically decorated with pinecones, evergreen branches, red bows, and other classic festive ornaments, often handmade.
Many people display hyacinths or amaryllis on the festive table or around the house. Although exotic plants aren’t related to the birth of Jesus, they make the interior cozier and symbolize eternal life, just like evergreens.
Americans are used to competing with neighbors for the best outdoor Christmas decorations, but the practice isn’t as widespread in Denmark.
Danes prefer to keep the house exterior minimalistic, so you can rarely see a residential street sparkling in fairy lights.
However, main city streets and landmarks are always dressed up, featuring string lights, shiny stars, Santa figures, and other holiday-inspired elements.
Tivoli Gardens is one of the most spectacular places to visit in Denmark, famous for creative decorations and colorful fireworks.
The decorations are inspired by Walt Disney’s cartoons, and the park offers an array of activities apart from looking around in amazement.
Gift Exchange Traditions
Gift exchange is the favorite moment of Christmas for all Danish kids. In Denmark, giving gifts to colleagues, extended family members, and acquaintances isn’t common – usually, the gifts are exchanged among immediate family and close friends.
While giving a gift to one’s employer isn’t necessary, many companies give holiday gifts to their employees, be it a basket of sweets or a thirteenth salary.
Overall, Danes are pretty practical and straightforward about gifts. For example, they see nothing wrong in discussing the gift’s price with friends and usually strive to gift something useful.
Many families observe the pakkeleg tradition, translated as “package game.” The players throw dice, and whoever wins can choose the most attractive gift. Another fun Danish Christmas tradition is mandelgave or “almond gift.”
A person who finds a whole almond in the traditional Danish rice dessert receives a second gift. The gifts are usually small and inexpensive, such as war socks, fragrant candles, or a bag of sweets.
Families with kids usually open gifts on Christmas Eve before going to church. However, adults can exchange gifts anytime, and many prefer to do it on Christmas Day.
Christmas Tree From The Forest
Like in most European countries and the U.S., the Christmas tree is in the spotlight of every Danish home. Many Danes cut a fir from the forest themselves instead of buying one, as long as it’s allowed in the region.
Picking the most beautiful tree in the forest is a beloved tradition of Danish children, who are happy to spend the entire day on the trip.
Danish Christmas tree ornaments are often wooden, shaped like stars, hearts, and angels. A Danish Christmas tree may feature real candles (despite the fire hazard), fruit, nuts, and other organic ornaments.
Before opening gifts, Danish families walk around the Christmas tree, singing carols. According to local legends, walking around the fir allows Santa enough time to put the gifts unnoticed.
Interestingly, Denmark is Europe’s largest Christmas tree exporter, selling millions of trees annually to the U.K., France, Switzerland, and other surrounding countries.
Julemanden & His Nisse
The Danish Santa Claus is called Julemanden, translating as Christmas man. He doesn’t originate from Saint Nicholas but Danish folklore.
According to Danish mythology and fairytales, Julemanden is a cheerful man who lives in Greenland and loves rice pudding.
Rice pudding is a traditional Danish Christmas dessert, and Julemanden indeed likes it – or those who play Julemanden’s role, be it the father of the family or older brother. For this reason, some children leave rice pudding out for the Julemanden to enjoy.
Although Julemanden was initially very different from American Santa, his modern version also wears a red and white suit and round glasses on a plump face.
Julemanden’s helpers, nisse, are short creatures with long white beards wearing conical caps, resembling garden gnomes.
Julemanden and nisse originated from Norse paganism, like many Scandinavian Christmas customs. Nisse were believed to help farmers and children, protecting the home while everyone was asleep.
Christmas markets are a long-standing European Christmas tradition dating to the 13th century in Austria. Egeskov Castle, built back in 1554, hosts one of Denmark’s most impressive Christmas markets, surrounded by scenic lakes.
Another must-visit Christmas market in Denmark is located in Copenhagen’s famous amusement park Tivoli Gardens. It isn’t the largest one, featuring about 60 stalls, but the magical atmosphere makes up for the size.
Hans Christian Andersen Christmas Market in Odense, the writer’s hometown, offers an assortment of holiday foods and handmade ornaments. The market in the small medieval town Nyborg remains an undiscovered gem to many but is worth the visit.
Julefrokost is the most anticipated part of any Danish Christmas celebration. Although Julefrokost translates as Christmas lunch, it usually starts late in the evening and lasts until late at night.
People usually dress up for Julefrokost – men wear suits and women their best dresses, regardless of the attendee count. Naturally, eating is an integral element of any Julefrokost, but the party doesn’t revolve around the dinner table.
People will also dance, sing traditional Danish carols and modern Christmas songs, and talk. Many people play games, with pakkeleg being the most common choice.
Danes place great importance on Christmas table decoration, using festive tablecloths, ribbons, candles, flowers, lanterns, and their best porcelain tableware.
Christmas Food in Denmark
Julefrokost food deserves special attention because Danish Christmas meals are pretty unique.
Food is traditionally served buffet-style, and everyone must try a little bit of every dish. The starters include herring in various marinades, remoulade, breaded fish fillet, and rye bread.
The main entrée may include curried meatballs, duck breast, tiny sausages, or pork tenderloin served with boiled potatoes, red cabbage, and brown sauce.
Every meal is accompanied by beer or traditional Danish snaps – or both. Snaps are such an important element of the Danish Christmas dinner that even those who never drink will say “skål!” (“cheers!”) with a glass of the drink at least once.
After all that food, Danes need a light dessert, usually rice pudding with whipped cream, almonds, and hot cherry sauce.
Many Danes also eat gingerbread and chocolate sweets. During dessert, Danes can relax from drinking and have a cup of coffee.
Aebleskiver, translating as apple puffs, have no apples in them – they are essentially tiny fried dough balls dipped in jam and sugar powder.
Glogg is a popular Danish Christmas drink made with hot wine, spices, and raisins. Kids usually have hot chocolate or Coca-Cola.
At the end of the party, the hosts serve Skrub Af Suppe, roughly translating as “get lost soup.” The soup recipe can be any – the goal is to provide guests with a polite hint that the party is over.
Genuine Time Off
For Danes, hygge isn’t just a trendy word – it’s a lifestyle. They take genuine time off at Christmas without phones, work, and other distractions. All stores are closed from December 24 to December 26.
Danes spend quality time with family and friends, away from the city rush. They prefer watching old movies and cartoons or playing board games to visiting festivals and dancing in clubs.
Religious Danes attend the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, a church service commemorating the birth of Christ. However, the tradition isn’t as widespread as in other European countries.
It’s not like Danes are less religious, but most prefer to spend the evening with their loved ones – or are unable to go anywhere after the Julefrokost meals.
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