Christmas in Denmark

This year, Paulus and I celebrated the holidays in Europe. It’s always wonderful to see family and friends, and we are fortunate enough that the main celebration doesn’t fall on the same day in both of our home countries.

I am Danish, and Paulus is Dutch. In Denmark, we celebrate Christmas Eve, on December 24, and in the Netherlands, Christmas celebrations are held on December 25 and 26. So in between, we make a mad dash from place to place in order to be present for each of them.

This year, we began our holiday sprint in Copenhagen, Denmark. We stayed in my friend’s apartment. She was still at work when we arrived, and she had written these genius little notes around the house to make us feel welcome. I spent the first half hour finding and reading notes and smiling and laughing at their cute, welcoming messages.

Here’s one that implies that there’s a choice of this bread or real rye bread from the fridge. I proceeded to eat most of a whole loaf of rye bread in just a few meals. I miss that stuff!

Even the inside of the fridge had a post-it:

We spent a few good days in Copenhagen, visiting friends, trying out The Market restaurant (which we liked) and sleeping at inappropriate times (thanks, jet lag).  One afternoon I met with a friend while Paulus was working. A walk through the city center with a good friend offered the opportunity to take in the Copenhagen holiday atmosphere. Here is the Christmas Market in Nyhavn:

The Copenhagen Opera was gorgeously lit against the dark sky.

So were the Christmas trees around town.

Here’s an untraditional one.

After Copenhagen, we headed west to visit my family. We celebrated Christmas Eve at my Aunt and Uncle’s house. This day follows a very specific pattern in my family. The festivities begin after lunch. This year, we started with a game of ‘pakkeleg’ ‘parcel game’, which is akin to White Elephant, except it is played with dice and a timer. I won some toothpaste which I first celebrated (this solved that problem that we had forgotten to pack toothpaste!), and then later forgot to take with me.

We then played a favorite game from childhood ‘Tante Agates Testamente’. The point of the game is to have one of your players inherit the rich aunt’s fortune by being the sole survivor of the traps in the house (falling chandeliers and roaring fireplaces). Sadly, I wasn’t devious enough to keep my characters from an early demise.

After the game, it was time for Disneys Juleshow. There is a Scandinavian tradition of showing an hour of classic Disney clips on TV on Christmas Eve. In Denmark, this happens at 4pm. One year the public TC channel attempted to change the time of the show. This caused an uproar so intense that I won’t even discuss what happened when they proposed to cancel the show altogether.

The best part about the show is that it’s always the same, so by now we all know each line and sound effect by heart. Imagine a group of young people sitting around the TV with reverent looks in their faces while copying the sounds of a snowball fight between Donald Duck and Huey, Dewey, and Louie and you’ll have a pretty good idea what Christmas looks like in our house!

Soon after the Juleshow, it’s time for dinner. We eat duck, sausage, pork, caramelized potatoes, picked red cabbage, oven-warmed potato chips, and lots of gravy.

After you eat much more than you actually can, it’s time for dessert. Our dessert is Risalamande, a sort of rice porridge with almonds and whipped cream, smothered in cherry sauce. The main goal of the dessert is to find the one whole almond that is hidden somewhere in the serving bowl. You’re allowed to visually inspect the bowl before serving yourself, so that if you think you see the almond, you can take a spoonful from that particular spot. But once you touch the serving spoon you have to immediately put dessert on your plate. Whoever gets the almond wins a present. But sometimes no one gets it in the first round, and then you have to force yourself to eat some more until it is found. Or until the person who found the almond in their very first spoonful, but hid it in their cheek in order to watch everyone needlessly stuff themselves, gleefully reveals that they had the almond all along. And then they get the present. Traditionally the present is a little pig made out of pink colored marzipan, but that is not a very useful gift, so in my family the gift tends to be something else. Generally, that something else isn’t very useful either. But at least it isn’t a marzipan pig. At another point, I’ll tell you about my experience with Marzipan pigs in the Netherlands. That was something else!

After dinner, it is time to light the candles on the tree. We all gather around the tree and then we sing carols and hymns while we walk around the tree. Expect we call it dancing.

Once everyone has picked their favorite carol (or whenever any present kids become too impatient to wait even a minute longer to open their presents), we settle down for a few hours of exchanging gifts. This, too, follows a very specific pattern. The youngest picks a present and brings it to the intended recipient. The present is opened and the recipient gets up to thank and hug the present giver or givers. And then he or she picks another present and brings it to the proper recipient, and so on. Depending on the quantity of presents in a given year, this process can take all night. But I love it, because you get to see everyone’s reaction to what they receive, and to me that makes the process as much about giving as about receiving.

I received great gifts, including a wonderful tablecloth and some gold-rimmed plates, saucers and cups that I’ll be sure to feature in a future blog post.

Very early on Christmas morning my mom drove us to the airport for our flight to Amsterdam. The airport nearest to my mom’s home is in Billund, which is also the location of the original Lego Land. We found this Lego sculpture on our way to the gate, and it seemed appropriate to feature it here.

I’ll detail our adventures in the Netherlands in an upcoming post, but for now, happy holidays to you all!

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