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Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Favorite Danish Christmas Traditions


     Christmas is a magical holiday, especially for children. When I was young, I always looked forward to celebrating with my maternal grandparents, who incorporated traditions from their Danish heritage into our festivities. The Christmases in my novel, The Legacy, were inspired by these childhood experiences.


       My most vivid memories are of “dancing” around the Christmas tree and phonetically singing a song in Danish, "Nu har vi jul igen." At the time I had no comprehension of the words and little understanding of the meaning of the lyrics, but we laughed joyfully as we skipped and trotted around and around the decorated tree. Since I've begun studying Danish, I know the translation is “Now we have Christmas again.” And now, in 2020, we have Christmas (jul) again, and I am still fascinated with Danish holiday customs. 

     Winter brings long nights with many hours of darkness to the Nordic countries. Before the birth of Christ and the Christianization of the people centuries later, Danes had winter celebrations filled with feasts and superstitions. Many aspects of these pagan rituals found their way into subsequent Christmas traditions. One of these is the folklore surrounding  the Nisser. Nisser are similar to gnomes, short with long gray beards. They wear homespun clothes and bright caps, usually red. They are clever about getting around without being seen, but they do not leave gifts.

     A nisse (singular of nisser) expects a snack, usually of porridge on Christmas Eve. If not fed, he becomes cranky. Failure to leave a snack risks insulting a nisse.  A nisse is mischievous, but not evil. Some people believe a nisse is the spirit of an ancestor who comes around during Jul to see that the ancestral home is being properly cared for. The legends of the nisser vary by the source.


     Another tradition that carried over from pagan celebrations is the generous use of candles to light the darkness and bring warmth to the long winter.  In the Middle Ages, candles, food and money were given to poor people as charity. Today, Danes still refer to Christmas as the feast of the candles. An advent wreath of evergreens with four tall red or white candles is often hung above or set in the center of the dining room table. The first candle is lit the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Each week, an additional candle is lit until all are lit the last Sunday before Christmas.

    A very old Danish custom is to give farm animals and birds special attention during the Christmas season. The barnyard and stables are thoroughly cleaned. A sheaf of grain is hung out for the birds and livestock are given extra rations on Christmas Eve. A farmer who neglects his animals at Christmas will have bad luck in the new year. (I fill my birdfeeders on Christmas Eve. Does that count?)

     One of my favorite Danish traditions is sharing holiday cheer with family, friends and neighbors. Keeping homemade goodies, cookies, cakes and pastries on hand for visitors and delivering plates of them to neighbors is part of the fun.

    The traditional Christmas feast is usually enjoyed on Christmas Eve. The meal is followed by a dessert of Ris a l’Amande, a cold, creamy rice pudding made with vanilla and almond slivers. One (or more) whole blanched almond is mixed into the pudding. Traditionally, it is made the day before or in the morning and set out during the day to prevent nisser from playing pranks. When ready to serve, hot cherry sauce is poured over the top. If cherries aren’t available, raspberries may be used. The person who finds the almond gets a prize. Everyone must keep eating the pudding until someone finds the almond.

    These Danish customs found their way into The Legacy as they are some of my favorites.

     Do you have favorite Christmas traditions or memories?

Ann Markim

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  1. Hi Ann, I loved your blog! Love the idea of dancing roung the tree! Nisser sound similar to brownies. We always left a mince pie and sherry out for Father Christmas on Christmas Eve amd my mum recalled a custom called Mumming, where children put soot on their faces and went from house to house at Christmas-time, for luck.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Your Father Christmas fared far better than Santa Claus did at our house. Mumming is an interesting custom I hadn't heard of. Merry Christmas.

  2. Lovely to hear of the Danish customs. The Ris a l’Amande sounds very delicious. Some of the things are echoed in UK traditions, so seem familiar, but different enough to be compelling and fresh. Merry Christmas.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I made the Ris a l’Amande last year for Christmas and we enjoyed it. I hope you have a Merry Christmas.

  3. I love all the Danish Christmas customs you shared. As a child, I would have loved to dance around the Christmas tree. My younger sister and I always got to open one gift on Christmas Eve which was the predictable pair of matching pajamas. Merry Christmas!

    1. When my daughter was a child, we also had the 'one gift on Christmas Eve' tradition, but it wasn't always pajamas. Dancing around the Christmas tree was always fun, with all the cousins, aunts and uncles. Merry Christmas.

  4. What an remarkable post about Danish Christmas and traditions. I watched a foreign Christmas show on Netflix that I thought might be Nordic, but exactly where I didn’t know. The word “Jul” came up from time to time between scenes. I wasn’t sure what it meant or what language it was until I read this post and discovered it was Danish for Christmas. Mystery solved.

    If I lived to the far north like the Nordic people, I would certainly wat to brighten the dark days of winter with festivities and feasts, too. I liked the mischievous nisse with their red caps and gifts. I wonder if those red caps were the beginning of Santa’s red costume. How wonderful that you had grandparents who introduced you to their Danish traditions so you could carry them on for future generations.

    I really liked the tradition of being kind to the animals and feeding the birds. That’s a lovely tradition to carry forth.

    This was a wonderful blog, Ann. Thank you so much for sharing your family traditions. MERRY CHRISTMAS!

  5. You're welcome, Sarah. Thanks for commenting. I hope your Christmas has been merry.