The Happiness Index

The Holidays Are a Time for Tradition in Denmark – but with Some Festive Must-Haves, We Can All Get a Slice of the Hygge Action

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By Helen Russell

Doing Christmas the Danish Way

The Decorations

Candle-light flickers from inside every Danish home and red hearts hang from the windows at this time of year as Danes hunker down inside to keep warm and get hygge. Design is key in Denmark but when it comes to Christmas decorations, Danes take a break from their customary minimalism. As well as the iconic Georg Jensen ornaments [hyperlink to Home For The Holidays piece] and festive red hearts, it’s customary to bring the outside in and adorn your home with forest leftovers including lichen, acorn, fir cones, beechnuts, moss and even mushrooms. The one exception? The tree. Bushy Danish firs are left outside until Christmas Eve when they’re decorated as a family with the colors of the Danish flag – red and white – as well as fairy lights and real candles. Danes love candles so much that they burn through more per capita than any other nation in the world.

Presiding over everything, are the nisser – small, goblin-like creatures that tradition has it could determine how fruitful a farmer’s harvest would be in days gone by. If families kept their nisser happy with plenty of porridge, the goblins would make sure things went well on the farm. Nowadays, nisser are used as spies for Santa, reporting back on any bad behaviour and helping to decide whether kids – big or small – deserve good gifts this Christmas.

The Cuisine

Christmas preparations in Denmark involve a gluttonous quantity of sweet treats – from marzipan butterflies, to pebernødder – spiced ‘pepper nut’ biscuits, æbleskiver - spherical pancakes served with jam and sugar, and honninghjerter – chocolate-dipped honey biscuits - delicious with your morning coffee.

Once it’s time for something a little stronger, Danes move on to gløgg  – the Danish version of mulled wine, traditionally served with chopped almonds and raisins spooned into your glass to serve. There’s also julebryg, the liquorice-infused festive beer that’s on sale from the first Friday of November each year (such an important date in the Christmas calendar that Julebryg Dag or J-Day has now entered the Danish dictionary) and of course, schnapps. The liquor is considered an essential accompaniment to julefrokost – the Danish Christmas lunch – when shots of the stuff are taken with every mouthful of herring smørrebrød [hyperlink to Danish cooking school recipe] (traditional open rye-bread sandwiches) ‘to help the fish swim’, as the Danes say.

The Main Event

Christmas is celebrated on December 24th with a feast of slow-roasted duck or pork (or both, in some households), caramelised and boiled potatoes (because Danes can never have enough potatoes in any given mealtime) and red cabbage. This is followed by risalamande - a form of rice pudding mixed with whipped cream and chopped almonds with a whole almond hidden somewhere in the dish. The lucky reveller who finds the whole almond wins a prize, but has to conceal their discovery as long as possible by hiding the nut in their cheek. This is so that the rest of the party has to gobble down the whole of the creamy desert before the big reveal.

The Entertainment

After you’ve eaten, pakkeleg starts up –a high-octane form of pass the parcel where everyone brings a small wrapped gift and then throws dice for the chance to steal other people’s before stockpiling as many as possible for themselves. Then it’s time for a singsong when Danes up and down the land join hands and dance around their Christmas tree while singing traditional songs. Just be careful to avoid those naked flames…

After this, Denmark shuts down for the rest of the holidays and it’s all about getting hygge  with family and friends – and making the most of all those leftovers.

Helen Russell, is a journalist and author of The Year of Living Danishly published by Icon Books, January 2014