In Denmark, Christmas is a true combination of the old and the new. The Danish word for Christmas 'Jul' (Yule) dates back to the time of the Vikings. Today, Christmas in Denmark is a wonderful mixture of ancient heathen and Christian traditions combined with a fabulous commercial racket.
From the TRUE residence of Santa Claus to holding hands and dancing around the Christmas tree, we’ll guide you through everything you need to know about Danish Christmas:
- How do Danes celebrate Christmas?
- Checklist for your Danish Christmas kit
- Must try foods or beverages during your Christmas in Denmark
- The ultimate bucket list for a Danish Christmas
Before we start, this is how to say Merry Christmas in Danish:
♥ Glædelig Jul ♥
7 things you need to know about Danish Christmas customs
Christmas in Denmark involves equal parts glitter and lights, excessive eating and drinking as well as a number of ancient heathen and Christian traditions. Beware! When Christmas time rolls around in Denmark, you must be ready to wear a silly Christmas hat and dance around the Christmas tree:
- Santa Claus lives in Greenland. This is a known fact. People from outside of Denmark are simply misinformed.
- A Santa hat is the perfect thing to wear for adults in December.
- Presents are exchanged and opened after (Christmas) dinner on Christmas Eve. Santa's route definitely starts in Denmark!
- Before opening presents, Danes dance around the Christmas tree and sing songs.
- Be prepared for a total lack of social decorum at the Christmas lunches in Denmark [julefrokost]
- Snaps is the Devil’s elixir and nobody likes it, but Danes still buy approx. 1.5 mio. bottles of the stuff in December.
- Real lit candles on the Christmas tree (usually). No matter how ‘hyggeligt’ this might look, it can still be a fire hazard.
Danish people do not only celebrate Christmas on December 24th, The Christmas celebrations starts several weeks before. Check out our list of important Christmas activities:
J-day - The first Friday in November is the annual Christmas beer launch in Denmark. At precisely 8.59pm, crates of Julebryg are delivered to Danish bars and pubs and Danes get the first taste of Christmas.
Advent - Next up is advent, beginning four Sundays before Christmas Eve. Most Danish homes have an Advent wreath. The wreath has four candles and a new candle is lit every Sunday leading up to Christmas Eve.
1 December - This is when it gets deadly serious! The official countdown to Christmas Eve has begun. To make the waiting time shorter, children (and some adults) get a calendar with a gift and/or chocolate to open every day up to Christmas.
Every day from December 1st to December 24th, Danes light the advent calendar candle and watch this year’s televised advent calendar.
As a Danish language learner, you'll probably enjoy the annual televised advent calendars. The speech is usually clear and easy to follow. (Maybe not so much in the video below, but after playing it on repeat all day, we highly recommend it).
13 December - Saint Lucia's Day. Santa Lucia Dag was originally imported from Sweden and is a celebration of light. The tradition includes a 'Lucia Bride' chosen to wear a crown or wreath with 4 lit candles on her head. Together with her (his?) posse, s/he sings the Santa Lucia song and gives out cookies.
23 December - Make sure to do your shopping on the 23rd at the latest. Almost everything is closed on 24th, 25th and 26th. If you see people at supermarkets with loaded shopping carts in the days before Christmas, this is why.
December 23rd is 'Little Christmas Eve' in Denmark. Most Danish families decorate their Christmas tree and eat hot rice pudding this evening.
24 December - When Danes sit down for their Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, it's usually pork (flæskesteg) or duck (and) for the main course. Not a turkey in sight.
After dinner, Danes dance around the Christmas tree and open their presents.
25 December - Christmas Day is for family and friends. People in Denmark meet for Christmas Lunches and continue the excessive eating and drinking.
26 December - Boxing Day often brings one or two extra Christmas lunches with family and friends.
Make sure your Danish Christmas kit is in order. We recommend the following equipment for a Danish Christmas:
Kalenderlys [Calendar candle] Buy an advent candle and light it every day to mark the countdown for Christmas Eve.
Pakkekalender [Parcel calendar] Find or buy 24 small gifts - one for each day until Christmas Eve. Wrap the gifts individually and arrange them nicely to make an advent calendar for someone you love and enhance the Christmas spirit.
Adventskrans [advent wreath] Candles are an important part of Christmas in Denmark. For the personal touch, visit your local forrest to collect pine cones, moss, berries and whatever else, you can use to decorate your wreath.
Nissehue - [Christmas elf hat] A santa hat is an important part of your December uniform. Use it for the Christmas lunches or just to spread joy throughout December.
Kravlenisse [climbing elf] Cut-out Christmas elves are very popular in Denmark. Decorate your home with some cute and colorful Christmas elves to let the Christmas spirit in.
Danes love good food and December is the perfect time to try out some special Danish Christmas dishes. Unless you are a vegetarian, in which case the Danish Christmas dishes will provide plenty of challenges.
A traditional Christmas lunch consists of meat on meat with meat and perhaps a few caramelised potatoes thrown in for good measure.
The meat bonanza at a traditional Danish Christmas lunch includes:
- meat balls (frikadeller)
- liver paste on rye bread (leverpostej på rugbrød)
- pork tenderloin (mørbradbøf)
- roast pork with crackling (flæskesteg)
- fried pork sausage (medisterpølse)
Pickled herring and other types of fish are also popular dishes.
Other common Christmas edibles in Denmark are:
1. Rødkål - Red, warm and vinegar-infused cabbage represent the vegetable part of a Danish Christmas dinner.
2. Flæskesteg - the Danish version of roast pork always prepared with crispy crackling, is a favourite for the Danish Christmas dinner.
3. Brunede kartofler - [browned potatoes] one of the key players on the Danish Christmas table is the caramelized potatoes. Small boiled potatoes, cooked in butter and melted sugar. Careful! These spuds are a REAL cholesterol bomb.
4. Risalamande - For dessert, everyone eats a cold rice pudding with vanilla, almonds and whipped cream. Typically, there’s a single whole almond hidden in it. Whoever finds the almond wins a marzipan pig!
5. Risengrød - hot rice pudding served with plenty of butter and cinnamon is popular in December. This is also the christmas elves favourite dish and some Danes leave a bowl of hot rice pudding in the attic for the elves.
6. Snaps - Is an important beverage for the Danish Christmas lunches. This is a foul tasting strong alcoholic drink made of potatoes and seasoned with dill, bog-myrtle or (yuk!) caraway.
7. Gløgg - mulled wine is an essential part of Christmas all over Scandinavia. In Denmark, the main ingredients are red wine, brown sugar, spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and bitter orange. Make sure to add lots of raisins and split almonds before serving.
How to make your own Danish gløgg.
If you want hair on your chest, you can use stronger spirits such as vodka, akvavit, or brandy. You can make Gløgg without alcohol by replacing the wine with fruit or berry juices.
8. Julebryg/juleøl - Strong Danish beer marketed at Christmas. They vary in strength and style, though tend to be malty and around 6% abv.
9. Æbleskiver - [Apple slices] In Denmark, these (apple-free) spherical cakes are everywhere during the Christmas season. They are usually served hot with jam and powdered sugar and taste a bit like pancakes.
How to make your own 'æbleskiver'.
10. Pebernødder - [Pepper nuts] These walnut-sized cookies are a traditional Danish Christmas treat. The (nut-free) spicy cookies are highly addictive and taste of cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
How to make your own 'pebernødder'.
All of December is packed with Christmas events. Normally, Danes can be pretty reserved, but December could the perfect time to meet new people and get to know the Danes, so get out there.
We've selected a few activities in December, that you definitely should not miss:
Pakkeleg – [Parcel game] This game is popular at Christmas lunches and dinners. Playing parcel dice game brings out the worst in everyone – especially the Danes.
To play the game, everyone invited to the game must bring one or two small, wrapped gifts. The dice will decide if you are a winner or a loser. Beware! High hostility and fierce competition can be expected.
The rules vary from very simple, to complicated ones. The classic rules are as follows:
- Place all the presents in the middle of a table
- You need at least two cups with a dice in each. To start the game, roll the dice and pass the cup on clockwise around the table.
- If you roll a 6, you can grab a present. Leave the present in front of you on the table. If you roll anything else, you pass the cup on.
- When all presents have been claimed, the rules change.
- Now a secret timer is set and you get to steal presents from each other, when you roll a 6.
- If you roll a 1, you can still steal a present, but must give it to someone else (who is also playing).
- When the timer goes off the game is over and everyone can open the present(s) they won
Hemmelig nisseven [Secret elf friend] is the Danish version of 'Secret Santa'. A secret elf friend game might be arranged at your workplace. Just like Secret Santa the game is about giving gifts to the person you were assigned to, without them knowing who you are.
Contrarily to 'Secret Santa', in the Danish game you’re also expected to mess with the person a bit. This is the absolute best part of the game; I once filled my manager’s office with balloons. Getting creative with duct tape or snow-spray is also an option.
Julefrokost - [Christmas lunch] Make sure not to miss the Danish Christmas lunch. This is an epic gathering and a great way to experience the natives. Expect to be invited to Christmas lunches during all of December.
It all starts relatively civilized with classic Danish Christmas dishes and maybe a few games. It usually ends with too much snaps and people dancing on tables.
Expect to be invited to Christmas lunches during all December up until Christmas. Invitations may come from friends, work colleagues, sports teams, classmates, your kid’s kindergarden, etc.
Danse omkring juletræet - [Dance around the Christmas tree] This is it, the peak moment of the night …. or almost. Before opening the presents, Danes join hands and walk (or dance) around the Christmas tree. As a bonus, they also sing some traditional Christmas carols. Just between us, everyone is really waiting to open the presents.
Mandelgave - [Almond present] Winning the ‘almond present’ is serious business in Denmark. All you need to know is that in the whole risalamande pot there is only one whole almond. If you get the almond, you are a winner and get a present. Remember that you have to hide it, so that everyone else continues eating just to find it. Be careful not to chew it by mistake, because all the others will be expecting proof of their defeat.
Visit a Christmas market - The Danish Christmas markets are worth a visit. There are several happening in Copenhagen. Of these, the one inside the Tivoli Gardens and along picturesque Nyhavn, are the must-sees!
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Writing this post was actually quite a challenge. There were so many things that we would have liked to include, but didn't have the time to research.
Did we leave some important traditions or activities out? Leave a comment below with your suggestions.