I have a confession to make. Actually two. First, I have completely neglected my blog for the last several months. Blame it on a busy travel schedule and an active social life. However, most of my work-related travel is now behind me (at least for now) so I promise to refocus my attention on the blog and bring people up to speed with my experiences living and working in Denmark.
My second confession is that, despite my post being is entitled “Christmas in Denmark”, I was back in Canada visiting family and friends (and shopping!). All of which clearly qualifies me to talk about Denmark during the holiday season. However, a word of warning; the following contains extensive discussion about alcohol as this appears to be a central theme to the holidays in Denmark.
J-Day: The Christmas (Jule) season officially begin in Denmark on the first Friday of November in what is known as “J-Day”. There is no way to describe J-Day other than…well, to describe it.
Take a huge brewery (Tuborg), have them concoct some rather lousy beer and add in some spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves to give it a more festive flavour. Crank up the marketing machine and spend a lot of money on advertising this as a HUGE event. When the day comes, load the beer onto festively-decorated trucks and have them fan out to the various bars, cafes and pubs around the city. Dress employees in festive blue costumes complete with blue Santa hats with flashing lights. At exactly 20:59, start handing out these hats (a treat!), a few Santa suits (jackpot!) and beer to the locals. Then stand back and let the party begin!
The truth is, most Danes think that Christmas Beer (Juleøl) is pretty lousy and drink it only because…well, it’s the thing young Danes do to kick of the Christmas season. I must admit that I went out to celebrate a friend’s birthday on J-Day and was pleasantly surprised by a couple of the Christmas beers. All in all, the whole evening has a rather festive feel to it and everyone has a good time although the merriment was only beginning when I went home around 23:30 (Yes, I know. I’m getting old).
Decorations: As with most North American cities, Copenhagen takes on a festive air in the run up to Christmas. Nyhavn and the Strøget are decorated to the nines with lights. One thing that is very unique is the widespread use of hearts as part of the Christmas decorations. While North American’s associate hearts with Valentines Day, here they are an integral part of Christmas decor. The decorations in storefronts, particularly of major shops and department stores, are simply spectacular and project a sense of warmth and comfort in the otherwise dark and dreary weather that settles over the city this time of year. Some of these pictures were taken last year when it was much colder and there was a significant amount of snow.
Food and Drink: Despite the temperatures, cafes in the center of the city still have tables set up outside, complete with lanterns and thick, heavy blankets to contribute to the sense of hygge. When the weather gets too cold outside, everyone rolls into the cozy confines of a café. In addition to “kafe” or “varm chokolade”, a traditional Christmas drink to warm you up when you come in from the cold is gløgg, mulled wine flavoured with a variety of spices and orange and often served warm with æbleskiver, a light, fluffy pancake-type spherical pastry traditionally cooked with a piece of apple (æble) in the center.
Christmas Markets: Although not as big as in neighbouring Germany, the city has several outdoor Christmas markets with vendors selling all sorts of crafts and trinkets. Tivoli, the famous amusement park in the center of the city (and the subject of a future post when I actually get my act together) reopens for the holidays season and also has countless Christmas stalls resembling a Christmas market.
Julefrokost: From the day you arrive in Denmark, you will be subjected to wild tales about Julefrokost (Christmas party). This is the one time when Danes really let their hair down. Alcohol flows like the lead-up to Prohibition, people dress in crazy costumes, executives are ridiculed and people make complete and utter fools of themselves. What happens at Julefrokost stays at Julefrokost.
Our Julefrokost began around midday with a formal dinner. The dinner itself was rather mediocre but the volume of alcohol was staggering. Champagne was supported by unlimited amounts of wine and beer over the course of the dinner. However, these were only supporting cast members for Danish akvavit. Literally translated as “water of life” and also known as snaps, akvavit is 80 proof, which at 40% alcohol is equivalent to a bomb in a bottle.
The traditional way to consume aquavit is as a shot following consumption of raw herring or as a toast, a guaranteed way to find yourself on your back in a hurry. I was lucky in that I was situated at a rather subdued table with the exception of one Danish girl who tried to get everyone to shoot aquavit. We largely resisted her efforts and she soon became bored (and just a bit drunk) and wandered off to another table.
Dinner was interspersed with a variety of activities including (but not limited to) singing lyrics to the tune of popular songs. To an outsider, they seem awful but the average Dane is beside themselves with merriment as they sing along. The executives were made fun of on numerous occasions and made fun of themselves in a very professionally-done video with the CEO and another senior executive as the primary cast members.
Some companies (including my employer) have specific themes for Julefrokost and people wear costumes in keeping with this theme. While costumes are typically chosen individually, our entire department decided to coordinate our dress, a decision which involved importing a lot of Indian clothing from the UK. We were rewarded for our efforts by being selected as the best dressed department.
Following dinner and speeches, the tables were cleared away and the DJ was replaced by a live band. This is when the party really starts to get wild. Thankfully, there was a pause between these two phases, allowing those who didn’t care to participate make a clean getaway. As I had a busy weekend preparing for my return to Canada and no desire to see how crazy it would get, I took the opportunity to bail. However, I’m sure that I’ll be privy to some wild stories…until the next Julefrokost.
One rather heart-warming follow-up to the above; although I work at a reasonably large employer, Julefrokost is part of every work environment. I have heard stories of contractors setting up make-shift tables in buildings they are working on and throwing formal Christmas dinners for their employees, complete with top quality silverware and stemware, indicating the importance of the occasion to Danish society.
Christmas: Until I have experienced a true Danish Christmas, there is not a lot that I can say. For North Americans, perhaps the most obvious difference is that Christmas is celebrated on the evening of December 24th. Although there are gifts and a Christmas tree, I get the impression that it is not as commercial as North America. December 25th & 26th are reserved for eating with friends and family. However, I must say I was surprised by the number of people that worked between Christmas and New Years.
Miscellaneous: One common feature of the holiday season in most western cultures is Handel’s “Messiah”. I had the opportunity to go to the concert at Copenhagen’s Marmokirken (Marble Church) with a number of friends. The experience was simply amazing with the combination of choir and orchestra in an environment with absolutely stunning acoustics.