A Festive Countdown – 10 Danish Holiday Traditions

Starting as early as November, the holiday season is a time of traditions and fun in Denmark Buildings are covered in lights, winter markets occupy streets, and the scent of roasted chestnuts and candied almonds wafts across city squares. These scenes bring warmth to a wintery season, and signal a countdown to a new year. Read below, as we break down ten of these traditions — from advent calendars to kayak processions, gløgg (mulled wine), and more!

1. The Christmas Countdown

Interestingly, Christmas has been celebrated in Denmark since before the coming of Christianity – the English word Yuletide came to Denmark through the pagan Vikings. Now a Christian celebration, Denmark’s holiday season is centered around a family celebration on Christmas Eve – and the countdown starts early. For children, the favorite way to count down the days is with julekalender (advent calendars), which many families craft themselves – either by stringing numbered gifts onto a ribbon (one for each day), or by creating a calendar that holds pieces of chocolate.

An advent candle (or candles) is also usually lit each week for the four weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, or families keep one candle with the days to Christmas descending down the wax, burning it each night in December.

2. Decorating with julehjerte

The Danes love decorating for Christmas, and a special Danish tradition is to make julehjerteor Christmas hearts, an interwoven, handmade decoration of red and white paper – the colors of the Danish flag. 

Many families even set aside a special ‘cut and paste’ evening to make these special ornaments, which are then put on the Christmas tree as decorations. If you want to see this in live action, check out the beginning of the DIS Residential Community video, where students are piecing together their own! 

3. Lucia Day

On December 13 every year, we celebrate Lucia Day. As December is the darkest time of the year, Lucia Day is a celebration of light. The tradition, imported from neighbors Sweden, includes a special Lucia song and features a girl who is specially chosen to carry a wreath of burning candles on her head. In Copenhagen, a popular alternative celebration takes place: the Lucia kayak procession, in which decorated kayaks, adorned with festive decorations and lights, illuminate the city’s canals.

4. Traditional Danish Baking

There is a saying in Denmark that if a visitor leaves your home without being fed, they will steal off with the holiday spirit. Maybe this is why we Danes have so many tasty treats at this time of year. Among the most common are pebernødder, small biscuits flavored with
seasonal spicing; brune kager, Danish gingerbread cookies; æbleskiver, fried apple dough balls that are somewhere between a pancake and an airy donut; kransekage, a marzipan ring cake; and klejner, a traditional Christmas cookie.


5. Winter Markets

If you are looking for presents, new mittens and a hat, a reindeer skin, spices, or Christmas decorations, winter markets are the place to head. Markets are held over the holiday period in practically every major Danish city and town, with several happening in Copenhagen. Of these, the one inside the Tivoli Gardens and along picturesque Nyhavn, are the must-sees!

6. Gløgg 

To warm up, Christmas shopping is not complete without a break for gløgg  (usually accompanied by some warm æbleskiver). Say this one quietly, as the Swedish might claim to have started this tasty trend, but over time it has also become a beloved tradition of warming up at Christmas markets and cafes in Denmark.

Gløgg is mulled white or red wine with a nip of brandy, rum, or snaps, spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, raisins, almonds, and sometimes citrus. Some families celebrate ‘Little Christmas Eve’ – the evening before Christmas Eve with gløgg and aebleskiver as well.

7. The Lights of Copenhagen and Tivoli Gardens

During the holiday season, the streets of Copenhagen, as well as other Danish towns, are lit up with festive street lights. The most iconic street is Strøget, which runs right by DIS, and is decked out with large, red, heart-shaped lights every year.

And if that wasn’t enough to illuminate the holiday spirit in the capital, Tivoli Gardens – a huge amusement park here in the city center – goes all out with a winter market, fairytale winter decorations, spectacular lights, and special events like Christmas comedy theater. Romantic, fun, and very typically Danish!

8. Julefrokost

While most Danes spend Christmas with their families, the weekends of December tend to be filled with julefrokost (Christmas ‘lunches’) with friends, work colleagues, or clubs coming together to celebrate the season.

In the past, DIS Homestay networks (a collection of Homestay hosts and their students that live in the same community in greater Copenhagen) have joined together to celebrate a special julefrokost, and many Kollegiums, Living & Learning Communities, and Residential Communities get together. Additionally students who have Visiting Families or live in Homestays are often lucky enough to share in this tradition in a local’s home.

Julefrokost can last all afternoon or even be held in the evening, and has many courses – from an array of different types of herring, to shrimp and eggs, to flæskesteg (crackling pork) and smørrebrød. 

Throughout a julefrokost, expect many interruptions. There will be singing, but the most constant break is taken for sharing akvavit (schnapps) with a skål (cheers). When someone at the table announces “skål” everyone raises their glass and nods to everyone else at the table – being sure to look them in the eye before taking a sip of their drink.

9. Christmas Concerts

Danes love traditional Christmas music. Nøddeknækkeren (The Nutcracker) is performed by the Royal Ballet each year, the Opera House hosts carols, and churches throughout Copenhagen open their doors to the public to host Christmas concerts. Several DIS students attend a Christmas concert as a Field Study with their Danish Language & Culture class, or make plans with host families or friends to go see a concert. And look out for Danish staff and faculty singing in the local choirs!

10. Juleaften (Christmas Eve)

The main celebration of Christmas is on Christmas Eve, juleaften, with the festivities traditionally beginning at the ringing of the four o’clock church bells. You’ll find Danish families sitting down to a dinner of roast duck (goose or pork crackling are also very common). It is also a tradition to stuff the duck or goose with apples and/or prunes and to serve it with sweet potatoes, red cabbage, boiled potatoes, and beets. And holiday speeches are given with glasses of akvavit raised. Nom!

Danish Christmas dinners are brought to an end with the serving of ris à l’amande (a rice pudding made with whipped cream, vanilla, and almonds), served with a cherry sauce. A single peeled almond is hidden somewhere in the large bowl from which dessert is served and everyone must continue to eat until the almond is found. Some mischievous Danes hide the almond in their mouths just to make their fellow guests go on eating till the bowl is wiped clean! The person who finds the almond gets a present . . . accompanied by begrudging groans from overly full fellow guests.

After dinner comes the big highlight of the day – the lighting of the Christmas tree. Throwing caution to the wind, the Danes love to use real candles, as opposed to electric lights.

After the candles are lit, everyone joins hands and dances around the tree – being careful not to start a fire! And while most of the Christmas-celebrating world waits until the 25th of December to open presents, the Danes and Scandinavian cousins open presents on Christmas Eve as well. In Denmark, a julenisse, a creature comparable to an elf, is responsible for delivering gifts to the children. Sometimes, the julenisse – or Santa Claus – (a neighbor in disguise, perhaps) actually arrives to the door to add extra excitement to the occasion!

Want to learn more?

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