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CHRISTMAS IN DENMARK – an Armchair Study

December 12, 2013

Right now my life is consumed by three things.  Wait, of course there are more than three things, but there’s an interesting convergence of these particular three things – VOX 3’s Half Spent was the Night, VOX 3’s upcoming Danish festival (I’m participating in the opera, Nielsen’s Maskarade.  I play an aging madam of a brothel.  You should come check it out.), and HOLY COW, here comes Christmas!  This afternoon it occurred to me, how do the Danish celebrate Christmas?  Do they have any uniquely Danish traditions?  Since I work in a library, I decided to engage in a little research.  Here are a few things I found.

Santa Lucia celebrationAccording to my research, the entire month of December is focused on the coming Christmas holiday, though it is unlikely the festive buildup focuses on shopping quite as much as it does here in America. However, the Danes might mark the four Sundays of the Advent season by lighting the candles on an Advent wreath on those days.  They may also observe the countdown by lighting a calendar candle.  In 1935, this candle was introduced as something one could make at home with the children, but since the early 40s it has also been produced commercially.  As you can see from the image, as the candle burns, the days to Christmas burn away!  Very cool!

On December 13th, Danes will celebrate St. Lucia’s Day.  This holiday originates in Sweden, but was imported to Denmark in 1944 by the Föreningen Norden (Nordic Association).  Officially, it was a way of promoting light and goodness in a time of such extreme darkness, but it was also a subtle protest against German occupation.  The celebration is dedicated to St. Lucia of Syracuse, an early fourth century Sicilian saint of which little is known.  A medieval compendium of saints’ biographies says that while seeking help for her ailing mother and angel appeared to her in a dream.  As a result of the dream, she became a devout Christian and was executed when she refused to give up her virginity to her husband. Anyway, I digress.  In the early Swedish tradition, the oldest girl of the household dressed in a white dress, red sash, with a wreath of candles on her head and served a breakfast of coffee and special buns to the family.  In modern times, there might be a public procession of Lucias, and boys may participate as well.  In Denmark, the holiday is used by schools to mark the start of the holidays, and Danes will likely be sure to attend church services on the Sunday closest to December 13th.

Christmas trees became a common part of the holiday by the 19th century.  Interesting fact, the colors of the decorations will generally be red and white as a result of the growing national consciousness of the 19th century.  Traditionally, the tree is decorated on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (December 26th) are observed as holidays with most of the shops being closed.  Up until the modern era, the Christmas season began on Christmas Eve and lasted until Candlemas on February 2nd.  This led to a wonderful social season of open houses and festive meals.

An 1889 engraving of a Danish woman preparing Æbleskiver

The Christmas Eve celebration will kick off with a meal.  The traditional rice pudding is served warm as a starter, or cold with cherry sauce as a dessert.  Whoever finds the whole almond in their pudding gets the almond present- usually a marzipan pig.  After dinner, the tree is lit and presents are distributed.  Originally, a pixie, or old farm leprechaun, or household god, who dates back to the pre-Christian era, brought the presents.  In the 19th century however, Father Christmas arrived.  He literally arrived when Danish-American immigrants sent postcards depicting Father Christmas to family back in Denmark, and gradually he took over the role of gift giver from the pixie.  Æbleskiver are another holiday treat, a traditional Danish pancake with a spherical shape, like a popover with a pancake texture.  These are served around Christmas time with gløgg, Scandinavian mulled wine.

Now, since St. Lucia’s day is coming, I will prepare for it by learning the Danish version of a traditional Neopolitan song!

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