Back in October people kept asking me what we would do for Christmas. It was a matter of days since we’d moved into our house, I’d had no routine for months, and boxes were still piled in barely-furnished rooms. I would have been quite happy pretending that Christmas wasn’t going to be a thing until around, ooh, mid-December.
But other people had plans to make too, so I gritted my teeth and nodded along with the ‘first Christmas in Denmark’ camp (namely MT) – and our visitors booked their flights.
I then merrily carried on pretending Christmas wouldn’t be a thing until around, ooh, mid-December. This despite the fact that I wholeheartedly joined in with the first big Danish Christmas tradition, which took place as early as November 2nd.
On J-dag (pronounced yul-day), the first Friday in November, Carlsberg delivers their Christmas version of Tuborg – the julebryg – at 9pm. They ‘make it snow’ and thus begins the festive season in Denmark. It’s the biggest night out of the year in Denmark (think Hogmanay, Scottish readers) and the streets were crowded, as distinctive blue merch was passed out to everyone, Christmas jumper or not…and there were a lot of Christmas jumpers on the streets that night. !
I eventually pulled my head out of the sand early December, to keep up with the Joneses (well, Jensens). Many of our neighbours had outdoor Christmas lights up by mid-November. This wasn’t much of a thing when either of us were growing up in the UK, and, as we worked out last week, even as a couple we’ve never spent Christmas in the same place twice, so festooning our suburban house in outdoor electricals felt like the ultimate in festive adulting.
Our visit to Harald Nyborg (DIY store) set us on a steep learning curve, and frankly there are purchases in the shed that are still waiting for the right voltage of extension cable. I’ll know what I’m looking for next year (if we spend it here…) Anyway, by early December we’d added our own twinkly cheer to the grey Danish winter. I put my head back in the sand.
But, inevitably, the day arrived when the Big Food Shop couldn’t be put off any longer, regardless of my trepidation over what a Danish supermarket might look like 3 days before their Christmas. Things did get dicey in the potato aisle. Potatoes are a Danish staple, and at Christmas they traditionally serve bruneder kartofler – small potatoes caramelised with butter and brown sugar. I was going for our traditional roasties though, and it took some searching to find the chunkier roastable speciments among the mountains of spuds. Even coming from a potato-reliant culture myself, I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many potatoes as there were piled up in Bilka that morning. I escaped before a trolley-rage showdown could ensue.
A giant turkey was easier to come by, since that corner of the chill cabinet didn’t hold much interest for the Danes. Some were busy hefting giant sides of pork into their trolleys, while others were selecting the choicest andbryst – duck breast.
The Danes do their celebrating on Christmas Eve, so everything is closed for three days from the 24th. Since we were sticking to our familiar 25th for our big day, Christmas Eve became a lovely bonus day. The shopping was all done, with no option to nip out for that last thing we’d forgotten. There was food prep, a few last things to wrap, and time for a blowy walk on the beach followed by hot chocolates at the chic hotel bar. At home, we settled in for gløgg (mulled wine) and æbleskiver (moreish pancake balls) with the pressure well and truly off.
On the day, I did incorporate some Danish favourites alongside our own traditional elements. At the start of December you could never have convinced me to include cold pickled herring (sild) in a festive meal, but after sampling a couple of tasty spiced options, I conceded that it would be an easy way to go Danish. I went with the deep fried option our Danish teacher had brought along to the class julefrokost (there’s the Scottish in me) and served it on rugbrød. (I held off on the remoulade though. Sorry, but it took me about a week in Denmark to have had enough remoulade to last several years.) Alongside some smoked salmon, the herring went down surprisingly well, even with the 7 year-old.
Our family has never been keen on heavy Christmas pudding, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to go for the traditional Danish dessert: risalamande, a cold rice pudding. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a comfort food, but with the addition of thick whipped cream and cherry sauce, it’s a surprisingly luxurious treat. And it holds a secret: one whole almond hidden, until someone finds it and wins a prize.
What we didn’t do
- Play pakkeleg: by all accounts a more manic version of secret santa or white elephant gift exchanges, involving the rolling of dice.
- Pull the Christmas tree into the centre of the room, light real candles on it, and join hands around it to sing Christmas songs. Srsly.
- Watch an advent calendar. Yes, ‘watch’. It’s apparently considered compulsory to watch the 24 daily episodes of a Christmas TV special, and 7 year old even came home from one of his Danish lessons asking for the next episode. But we don’t have Danish cable, so if it ain’t on Netflix… (Well, actually I think all we’d have had to do was find it online. But we didn’t look. Sorry.)
We’re now into my favourite part of this time of year: new toys, new planner, the motivation to get organised, headspace to think ahead, and a quiet house.
Quiet, except for the fireworks. I’m reliably informed that the amount of fireworks that will be let off on the 31st of December will be like nothing I’ve ever seen. Judging by the number we’ve already heard going off around our sleepy neighbourhood, that seems very likely. It’s actually illegal to set off fireworks in Denmark except for these few days – until January 1st. By all accounts Danes more than make up for the 359 fireworkless days by going all out over new year.
So, the neighbours (not us – we’ve seen too many bonfire night episodes of ‘Casualty’) will be helping us see 2019 in with an actual bang, while I make plans for a hyggelig year ahead.