During the holidays, my aunt sent our family a lovely book titled Christmas in Maine, which features charming 1941 text from a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. As I read it with the kids, one particular line struck me: “The secret of the best Christmases is everybody doing the same things all at the same time.” If this is true, then it’s no wonder that Christmas in Denmark is absolutely delightful.
Christmas falls just a few days past the darkest day of the year — and believe me, the days are very dark, indeed. But, despite this, the country somehow seems filled with a festive glow and an abundance of camaraderie. I think this is partly due to the fact that the Danes have so many shared traditions during this season. Of course, almost all countries have certain traditions in common. But in Denmark, more than any other place I’ve known, everybody really does “the same things all at the same time” during the holidays. Almost everyone celebrates the same Christian observances, such as Santa Lucia and Advent Sundays, regardless of their religiosity. Everyone watches the same programs on television, shown as a series of episodes throughout the month of December. And, above all, people come together and celebrate with the same foods.
There are many foods that we associate with Christmas in a place like America, but you could probably poll a dozen people and they would each give you quite different lists of the most classic Christmas foods. Here in Denmark, however, the menu is remarkably standard and people don’t tend to deviate too wildly…if at all.
We hosted the majority of my family for Christmas in Denmark this year, and we made the traditional Danish feast on Christmas Eve (the main day of celebration for Danes). This included flæskesteg (roast pork with crackling on top), rødkål (red cabbage cooked slowly in red wine, cinnamon, cloves and other aromatic ingredients), brunede kartofler (new potatoes caramelized in butter and sugar), and more potatoes for good measure (Danes generally serve boiled potatoes, we went rogue and made mashed potatoes with nutmeg). Some Danes serve duck instead of, or in addition to, pork. Some Danes even include a large pølse or sausage. So there can be a degree of variety in the meat. But you can virtually guarantee that all Danes will serve ris a l’amande for dessert, a creamy rice pudding served cold, flavored with vanilla, scattered with slivered almonds, then topped with warm cherry sauce. The dish always includes one whole almond, and the lucky feaster who finds it wins a gift.
Let’s be honest, I understand why the Danes don’t deviate much from this Christmas menu. It’s a fabulous, mouthwatering, delectable, decadent meal! But in reality, I think they would hold fast to this traditional meal even if tasted mediocre (in fact, I know plenty of Danes who don’t particularly like the meal, or at least certain parts of it, but they dutifully make it every year). These traditions, many of them going back centuries, seem to be woven into the very fabric of Danish society. They bind the Danes together, they annually confirm their solidarity as a people, even if they can sometimes seem unoriginal or a bit insane (for example, Danes persist in lighting candles on their Christmas tree and then dancing around said tree with its dozens of burning flames…a recipe for disaster by many standards, although also one of the most charming sights I’ve ever clapped eyes on).
This sense of shared tradition, togetherness and, to a degree, sameness extends far beyond the holidays. Take these two examples:
-Every Friday night, Danish children across the country sit down at exactly the same time to watch Disney Sjov, an hour-long cartoon program, while they eat a small bag or bowl of candy. If you don’t believe me, drop by the home of any Danish family with children at 7 p.m. on Friday. I will bet you a lot of kroner that Disney Sjov will be playing.
-Danish babies all nap outside in their prams, even in snowy, sub-freezing weather. I have never once met a Danish mother or father who said, “Oh, lots of Danes have their baby sleep outside, but we don’t subscribe to that philosophy.” Never. And I’ve met a lot of Danes. Now, I’ll need to do an entire post on the virtues and wisdom of this philosophy (I’m a TOTAL convert), but imagine living in a country where everyone agreed on a parenting method?!
I have no scientific basis for what I’m about to say, so take my opining with a grain of salt. That said, I have a feeling that these shared traditions have played a not insignificant role in helping Denmark build the kind of nationwide consensus that is needed to create a successful society based on “democratic socialism”, as it’s suddenly become quite trendy to call it. I always chuckle a bit at the studies showing Denmark is one of the world’s happiest countries because I don’t know that the Danes strike me as having an abundance of joie de vivre. But they are remarkably content people, and I think part of that contentment stems from the feeling that they share much in common with their countrymen, that they are all part of something bigger than themselves, working towards a greater purpose. And, in fairness — being content with one’s lot in life is a pretty good place to be, mentally and emotionally.
Now, the one cautionary note is that this sense of togetherness, or sameness, can sometimes make it seem difficult for Denmark to openly embrace people or things that don’t have the same shared history and sense of tradition. Certainly, you can scan the headlines and see that Denmark — like many European countries — is grappling with difficult questions related to immigrants and the huge influx of refugees. In the past several weeks, Denmark has often taken some heat on the international stage for policies that seem to imply sameness is precisely what the country desires. Of course, I’ve also seen many Danes protest actions that they view as closed-minded or even terrifyingly reminiscent of some of Europe’s darkest moments in history.
The issues facing Denmark are complex and multi-faceted. And the response to these challenges are varied, even in a land of 5.5 million people, most of whom descended from the same band of rugged Vikings (more or less). Furthermore, America, which happens to be one of the most multi-cultural countries to ever exist, is a place where you can also find the spectrum from tremendous bigotry to exceptional generosity and openness to new cultures. No country on earth seems to be immune to some of the difficult debates raging today.
So, without making any futile attempts to address the impossible conundrums of our age, I’ll just say this: Danish “togetherness”, “tradition” or even “sameness” may come with a few unappealing trappings and pitfalls. But there is still something reassuring and reinforcing about a place where, come Christmas Eve, you know that your friends, neighbors and everyone else in the country will be enjoying their flæskesteg and ris a l’amande, just like you.