Denmark, Christmas in

Denmark, Christmas in

The people of Denmark enjoy a Christmas season full of good food and good cheer. At least one Danish Christmas custom, Christmas seals, has become popular in the United States and other countries.

Christmas Countdown

Danes use Advent calendars and calendar candles to help them count the days until Christmas. Danish calendar candles display a series of numbers down one side. These numbers represent the dates between the beginning of Advent and Christmas Day. The candle is lit each day until the number representing that day melts away. Advent wreaths are also popular in Denmark.

Christmas Symbols and Decorations

As Christmas draws near, Danish people adorn both their homes and the city streets with a variety of Christmas symbols and decorations. The most popular Christmas symbol in Denmark is the red heart. It represents the love that infuses Danish Christmas celebrations. The Danish flag is another popular Christmas image. The flag displays a white cross on a red background. Red and white serve as Denmark's Christmas colors. One often sees the popular Christmas heart woven out of strips of red and white paper. Moreover, many Danes light up the dark December afternoons and evenings with flickering red and white Christmas candles. Danes also fashion many Christmas decorations from greenery, especially mistletoe and holly, which is called Kristdorn, or "Christ thorn."

The nisse or Julnisse is another popular Christmas image (see also Christmas Lads; Jultomten). According to Danish folklore, the nisser are small, elf-like creatures who live in dark, quiet corners of homes and barns. They possess certain magical powers, which they can use to create annoying household mishaps. Around Christmas time the Julnisser, or "Christmas" nisser, become active. Householders must appease them with a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve or they will pull pranks on family members.


In the weeks before Christmas Danish families give their homes a thorough cleaning. The cleaning prepares them to receive the many visitors who are likely to be entertained during the Christmas season. Christmas baking also begins early. Not only must there be enough holiday treats to satisfy family members, but also guests must be entertained with the special holiday dainties. Favorite Danish Christmas cookies include spicy, brown sugar, almond cookies called brune kager, deep-fried butter cookies called kleiner, and hard spice cookies called pebbernødder. Julekage, Christmas coffee cake, is another popular treat, along with vanillekranse, vanilla butter cookies shaped like wreaths.

In past times well-to-do Danish families often gifted their servants with a plate of Christmas cookies. The servants not only enjoyed the cookies but treasured the plates, which were nicer than their own. In the nineteenth century Danish plate makers began to issue special blue-and-white plates painted with holiday designs and numbered by year. Today people collect these plates. Another Danish Christmas custom achieved worldwide popularity. Around the turn of the twentieth century a Danish postmaster invented the Christmas seal as a way of raising money for charity. Today people in many countries decorate their Christmas cards, packages, and letters with Christmas seals.

The Danish people adopted the German custom of decorating their homes with a Christmas tree in the nineteenth century. Many Danish families sit down together and make their own Christmas ornaments out of colored paper and paste. Typical designs include garlands of Danish flags, hearts, nisser, stars, drums, bells, and cones, which are filled with sweets and nuts. Christmas crackers may also be hung on the tree.

Christmas Parties

Many companies, unions, and other organizations give Christmas parties during the month of December. Office parties often take the form of sumptuous Friday lunches that last all afternoon. Family members also attend these events. Some researchers believe these parties are the modern-day equivalent of community Christmas parties, called Jultraefests, or "Christmas tree parties," that used to take place in Danish villages and towns.

Christmas Eve

The Danes enjoy Juleaften, or "Christmas Eve," so much that they begin preparing for it the day before, on lille Juleaften, or "Little Christmas Eve." On Little Christmas Eve they take care of lastminute chores and errands and begin cooking Christmas dinner, which is served on Christmas Eve. On December 24 many Danes leave a Christmas sheaf outside so that the birds may also enjoy a special Christmas meal. All over Denmark church bells chime at 4:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Shops and offices close, and people scurry home.

For many families, Christmas Eve festivities begin with candlelight church services. Afterwards people return home to an elaborate Christmas dinner. Before sitting down to eat, many families set a flickering candle in the window. The candle signals an offer of hospitality to any lonely or hungry person who passes by (see also Advent Candle). Popular main dishes include roast goose and roast pork. Roasted potatoes, cabbage, and cucumber salad often appear as side dishes. In the old days, many housewives presented a kind of rice pudding as a first course. Nowadays, the rice pudding serves as a dessert. The cook hides an almond in each batch of pudding. Whoever finds the almond in their serving gets a special little gift, usually some chocolate or marzipan.

After dinner the family gathers around the Christmas tree. According to one old tradition, the parents shut themselves in the parlor alone on Christmas Eve to decorate the tree and light the candles that cover it. Thus, the youngsters got their first view of the lit and decorated tree on Christmas Eve. While fewer families observe this old tradition today, many Danes still light their trees with candles rather than electric lights. Usually an older family member slips into the parlor alone to light the candles. When everything is ready, the rest of the family enters. They join hands around the tree and sing Christmas carols. Afterwards the family opens their gifts. In families with small children, the father may leave the room briefly and the Danish gift bringer, Julemand, may put in a brief appearance. Julemand is supposed to look and act much like Santa Claus, although few children miss his resemblance to their father during these home visits. Danish families open their presents one by one and everyone admires each gift. They also save the Christmas cards they receive in the days before Christmas and open them after the gifts on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Day and Second Christmas Day

On Christmas Day people visit with friends and family members. Around midday most households serve a kolde bord, or "cold table." Everyone makes open-face sandwiches from this buffet of cold meats, bread, spreads, cheese, and appetizers. Hosts and guest toast one another with small glasses of aquavit, a Scandinavian liquor. December 26 is also a holiday in Denmark. The Danes call it "Second Christmas Day" and often spend it visiting relatives whom they missed on Christmas Day. Theatergoing is another popular activity, and many theaters begin showing a new play on this date.

New Year's Eve and Epiphany

Holiday merrymaking continues on New Year's Eve. Many Danes go to parties on New Year's Eve or entertain guests at home. In the early part of the evening the Queen makes her annual New Year's speech to the nation. Many Danes tune in for this annual event. The Danes play practical jokes on one another for New Year's Eve. Wise people pull their belongings into the house. If not, the next morning they might find their bicycle on someone's rooftop or their garden tools gone missing. Noisemaking is another old New Year's Eve custom. In the old days farmers shot off guns to usher in the new year (see also Shooting in Christmas).

Nowadays, most Danes have found safer ways to raise a din on the last evening of the year. In Copenhagen, people gather together at the town square on New Year's Eve to sing and to listen to the city hall clock ring in the new year. Danes also celebrate the new year with fireworks.

The Christmas season ends on Twelfth Night, or Epiphany Eve. Remaining Christmas trees are taken down on this day and ornaments stored for the next year. Some families light three candles on Epiphany Eve, which stand for the three Wise Men, or Magi, who visited the baby Jesus.

Further Reading

Fertig, Terry. Christmas in Denmark. Chicago: World Book, 1986. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003