Out with the yuletide, in with jul

The holiday season is an especially sentimental time of the year, and if you’re miles from home, nostalgia can be a cruel reminder of home—of everything and everyone you miss. But if you’re a fledgling in Denmark, determined to make the most of holiday season, incorporate some quintessentially Danish Christmastime customs and ceremonies into your celebrations. We guide you to them below.

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Text: Tina Jimmy Dastur  Pictures: Bente D. Knudsen

It’s the most wonderful of the year…well, for most. A universally-celebrated festival that travels across countries and communities, Christmas is synonymous with hope, love, and togetherness. It’s a time to reconnect with loved ones, reignite long-and-dearly-held family traditions, and rejoice over plates piled high with delicious nosh.

But for those who have left home for newer pastures—either by choice or design—this time of the year can be bittersweet, tinged with a longing for familiar faces and comforts. And if said ‘newer pasture’ is the Scandinavian land of Denmark, you’d best believe that the unrelenting cold and persistent gloom take turns to warp the very idea of celebration.

That said, home really is what you make of it, and the same can be said of traditions, too.

Even in a foreign land, surrounded by many unknowns, you can find ways to challenge conventional notions of ‘home’ by adopting new customs and making them your own. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much for that ‘home away from home’ feeling to sink in here in Denmark.

Whether it’s nisser on the shelf, a candle (or 10) on the Christmas tree, or a steady diet of gløgg and æbleskiver, our round-up of hygge-rific Danish Christmastime traditions promises to fill both your home and heart with merriness and magic.

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While some are sweet, others are twee, and yet others are downright zany. All can take some getting used to, but once you’re in the swing of things, you’ll realise that Danish julehygge can be a fond reminder of home, even if it’s wildly different from what you’ve grown up accustomed to.

Add ‘jul’ to your holiday vocabulary
Christmas, as we know it, is Denmark’s favourite and most eagerly-anticipated festival. Only here, it’s not referred to as ‘Christmas’ or ‘Yuletide’, but simply as jul. That, and it’s celebrated on the 24th of December, and not the 25th. Here in Denmark, the 24th is termed juleaften, which makes the 23rd lillejuleaften (Little Christmas Eve).

Even more interestingly, many Danes decorate their juletræer (Christmas trees) on lillejuleaften, and while it can be a family affair, some parents choose to do it in secret, as a surprise for their little ones on the morning of juleaften.

Although the 23rd and 24th are the most important dates on the country’s holiday calendar, a majority of Danish jul traditions and celebrations take shape in early December, so you’d best tap into jul spirit December 1st onwards. If you ask us, a good place to start would be dropping the cliched ‘Merry Christmas’ greeting and replacing it with the culturally-loved ‘God Jul’ or ‘Glædelig Jul’ instead.

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Pig-out at a julefrokost
Although julefrokost literally translates to ‘Christmas lunch’ in English, it is essentially a hedonistic Danish tradition that kicks off roughly a month and a half prior to the main holiday and encompasses elaborate meals hosted by friends, families, and workplaces.

If you’re bold enough to host your own, godspeed—God knows you’ll need it. If you’re lucky enough to snag an invite to one, brace and pace yourself for a day-long affair of excesses, where food-and-drink binges are interrupted by the odd party game (Pakkeleg is a favourite) and schnapps songs.

Feast on everything from rugbrød (rye bread) lashed with smør (butter) and smeared with leverpostej (liver pate), to syltede sild (pickled herring), boller i karry (curried meatballs), andebryst (duck breast), and flæskesteg (roast pork with a crackling rind) with a side of brunede kartofler (browned potatoes) and brun sovs (brown sauce), washing it all down with rounds of Tuborg’s annual julebryg (Christmas brew) and akvavit (schnapps).

End on a sweet high with helpings of risalamande—a cold rice pudding enriched with whipped cream, almonds, vanilla, and warm cherry sauce, which is, incidentally, also the subject of a fun ‘find the hidden whole blanched almond, win a julegris (a chocolate pig plump with marzipan)’ game—and Danish cookies such as pebernødder and vaniljekranser.

If you’ve still got wiggle room in your stomach after, consider spooning down some skrub af suppe before sliding into your coat and heading out the door. This famous ‘get lost soup’ of meatballs-and-dumpling or butternut squash served with warm crusty bread is self-explanatory and a not-so-subtle reminder to not overstay your welcome.

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Bring home naughty nisser
Make room on your shelves, windowsills, and sofas for nisser to fill your home with mirth…or mischief. It depends.

These garden-gnome lookalikes, with their pointy red hats and bushy beards, are a jul fixture across Scandinavia, known to protect and bring prosperity (or destruction) to both households and farmsteads.

A temperamental creature, the nisse’s benevolence is predicated on whether or not it has been adequately fed its favourite food of risengrød (a rice porridge with a knob of butter and dusting of cinnamon).

So, if you’re expecting pleasant surprises in your stockings, you’d do well to leave a bowl of generously portioned risengrød within reach of your nisse, especially on Christmas Eve. Failing which, you can wholly expect to wake up to chaos and commotion around the house…and if you’re lucky, it won’t be anything worse than tattered candy packets with their colourful, sticky contents strewn across the floor.

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Deck the halls, the Danish way
Perhaps the best way to tap into julehygge is to decorate your homes with typically Danish julepynter (Christmas ornaments), all of which are easily available in stores and at Christmas markets and many of which come with an element of DIY.

For starters, get yourself a kalenderlys—a countdown-style candle marked with numbers one through 24, meant to be inaugurated on December 1st and lit each subsequent day in the lead-up to juleaften.

A similar countdown piece worth showcasing is an adventskrans (Advent wreath), which is essentially a large wreath boasting four equidistant candles—symbolising the four Advent Sundays before Christmas—that can be displayed as the centrepiece on your dining table or conversely, suspended from the ceiling by a long ribbon (usually in the liturgical purple, but red and white also do the trick).

While a profusion of elegant readymade adventskrans options can be found in stores, you also have the option of designing your own. Just take a gander around your local park and forage for dried leaves, moss, pinecones, spruce twigs, and wintergreen boxwood branches, which you can then adorn with bows, baubles, and beautiful candles.

Speaking of designing decorations yourself, the Danes adore all manner of craftwork, as a result of which most Danish Christmas trees are dressed-up with ornaments cut and glued together by the families themselves on idle afternoons.

Go-to DIY decorations include julehjerter (Christmas hearts, primarily braided in the colours of the Dannebrog that can be traced back to Danish literary legend, H. C. Andersen, who made the first of its kind from green and yellow paper back in 1861) and julestjerner (Christmas stars).

If you’re feeling especially adventurous, experiment with materials like wood, straw, textile, and felt to craft everything from angels and reindeer, to a dainty bunting of the Danish flag to frame your windows or wrap around your tree.

Alternatively, if you’re willing to loosen your purse strings and splurge—‘tis the season, after all—consider investing in timeless ornaments from legacy Danish brands.

Think a Bing & Grøndahl hand-painted porcelain bell, a pair of Holmegaard tea light holders crafted from glass and etched with holiday-happy scenes, hand-painted juletræ ornaments from Art Glass Copenhagen, a Rosendahl julemand (the Danish Santa Claus) figurine in painted beech, and a Georg Jensen Christmas tree topper in 18-carat gold or stainless steel.

If all else fails, jul-themed LEGO sets and reindeer-styled Hoptimists are foolproof ways to save the day.

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Jul-ify your dinner table
When decorating for jul, definitely factor in revamping your dining table. You can, of course, keep it simple, but if you’re feeling inspired by the Scandinavian aesthetic and persuaded to decorate after the Danish manner, it helps to have a theme in mind—especially where the colour palette is concerned.

For example, a rustic theme would necessitate the use of warmer hues of brown and beige, while a nature-inspired table would show off pops of green, and a more contemporary approach would benefit from shades of silver, gold, and white. When in doubt, stick to basics—red and white is always a winning combination.

Once you’ve got that down pat, start by draping the dinner table with a jul-themed dug (table cloth) and supplement it with contrasting or matching bordløbere (table runners) for added sophistication and character.

Accessorise with satin and velvet ribbons, fresh or dried flowers, lanterns, candles (thick, thin, tall, short, calendar-style, twisted, coloured, scented—the possibilities are endless!), and a few decorative objects such as accordion paper juletræer, Nutcracker figurines, and pine garlands.

The main star of the set-up, however, needs to be your crockery, so delve into your display cabinets and dig out your finest china. Or, commit to making a lifelong investment in a few handcrafted items from legacy Danish porcelain brand, Royal Copenhagen. While the Star Fluted Christmas series is the natural choice, the Blue Fluted Plain range and White collections are worthy contenders, depending on your personal preferences and aesthetic inclinations.

For inspiration above par, make your way to Royal Copenhagen’s flagship store at Amagertorv 6 in Copenhagen and gawp at its Annual Christmas Tables presentation—a jul tradition started in 1963, which sees eminent individuals design interpretive tables that are inspired by their idea of Christmas. (Note: This year’s exhibit, titled Eras – 60 years with Royal Copenhagen Christmas Tables, presents five unique table settings by six noted Danish personalities and will be on display until December 31st in store and online).

Royal Copenhagen aside, porcelain pieces from Bjørn Wiinblad and Bing & Grøndahl are also expert picks—the latter actually pioneered the tradition of the iconic blue-and-white Christmas plate by issuing the very first of its kind, titled Behind The Frozen Window, in 1895.

If, conversely, you gravitate more towards ceramics, you can’t go wrong with dinnerware from homegrown brands like Kähler, Mette Duedahl, and GreenGate.

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Count down to jul with advent calendars
Similar in concept to the adventskrans, advent calendars are also an integral part of jul traditions in Denmark. These creatively conceptualised, attractively packaged, and imaginative calendars, with their element of surprise, are a hot favourite for holiday gifting (to others or to self) and an exciting way to count down the 24 days to jul.

The children’s version, commonly referred to as pakkekalender, is a fabric wall hanging with 24 pockets of goodies (toys, candy, chocolate, stationery, and the like), while the julekalender for grown-ups takes it up a few notches, with surprises taking the form of luxury skincare products, makeup palettes, perfumes, jewellery sets, spirits, confectioneries, and more.

On the subject of countdown calendars, don’t miss tuning into Danish Christmas calendar TV shows with family and friends. Year on year, Danish channels produce and broadcast entertaining Christmas-themed series for adults and children, split into 24 episodes, with one airing each day, starting December 1st until the 24th.

Noteworthy, however, is that these series aren’t available to watch in English, but are nonetheless a good way to polish your Danish language skills…even if it is only subconsciously!

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Celebrate a hyggelig juleaften
That is to say, on the 24th of December, of course. A typical juleaften sees a sober and unhurried morning transition to an animated afternoon and culminate in an exuberant evening.

Noontime church service usually marks the start of juleaften festivities and is followed by families gathering together over gløgg and varm chokolade (hot chocolate) to watch Disneys Juleshow: Fra Alle Os til Alle Jer (Disney’s Christmas Show: From All of Us to All of You)— an animated jul special broadcast every year in the Nordics since 1959 at 16.00.

What follows is julemiddag (Christmas dinner)—a hearty Danish repast consisting of julefrokost favourites, including roast duck or pork, boiled or browned potatoes, sauteed red cabbage, and brown sauce, finished with a bowl of risalamande and booming cheers of “Skål!” with shots of schnapps.

Once the bellies and hearts are full, it’s time to light the candles on the juletræ (yes, the Danes prop real candles up on their Christmas trees) before holding hands and dancing around the tree to customary jul tunes.

Finally, it’s time for julemanden to make his appearance and distribute the presents to the children. In Denmark, he’s usually a member of the family donning Santa garb, who strides confidently in through the main door, with none of the fuss that accompanies surreptitiously shimmying down the chimney in the dead of night.

You could stretch your juleaften celebrations over the 25th and 26th, too, but most Danish families use these days to relax and reminisce in the comfort of their homes, usually over more intimate and sedate julfrokost meals.

Bear in mind, though, that the country shuts down over this two-day period (supermarkets, restaurants, and cafes included), so make sure you’ve got your essentials stocked well in advance to tide you over that week.

God Jul!

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