Bill Egan

Christmas Historian

DENMARK is in Northern Europe, bordering the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, on a peninsula north of Germany (Jutland); it also includes two major islands (Sjaeland and Fyn). Denmark was once the seat of Viking raiders.

In Danish homes, Advent is celebrated with the arrival of the season's first decoration - a beautiful Advent wreath of evergreen boughs that holds four tall, white or red candles. The wreath is hung above or set on the dining room table. On the fourth Sunday before Christmas, one candle is lit, and the most festive and celebrated season of the year begins.

Christmas is the most important event on the Danish calendar, like the American Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one. The streets and shops are elaborately decorated and on the Fridays leading up to Christmas, companies close early while their employees participate in Christmas lunches lasting well into the night.

There are few places on earth where Christmas is celebrated with such joy and with such a burst of light. To dispel the gloom of the never-ending twilight of winter, the Danes light thousands upon thousands of candles. They burn so many candles that the nation consumes more candles per capita than any other country on earth.

On the first week of Advent, the Mayor of Copenhagen lights a huge spruce, a gift to the people of Denmark from their neighbors in Norway.

One important part of the Christmas season is the sharing of holiday cheer with friends and neighbors. Freshly baked cookies and cakes are always ready to serve to callers. In Denmark, it is a very old belief that a visitor who leaves without being fed may carry the Yule spirit away from the house. Thus, every Danish kitchen buzzes with activity and is filled with the smells of sweets and spices in the weeks before Christmas and a recipe given by a Danish housewife will yield three or four hundred cookies.

On Christmas Eve the family gathers for an early meal. The Danish flag decorates the home as well as the Christmas tree. The lighted candle in the window offers food and shelter to travelers who may be passing, in the spirit of the Christ Child.

As the twilight falls, the father reads the Christmas Gospel, and in the darkening room the family sings the Christmas songs dear to their hearts, such as the one by the great Danish poet Hans Brorson:

Thy little ones, dear Lord, are we,
And come Thy holy bed to see.
Enlighten every soul and mind
That we the way to Thee may find.

The first course of the Christmas Eve dinner is the traditional rice pudding with a while almond in it. The one who finds the almond usually keeps the others in suspense until all the porridge is eaten. Then he announces the prize triumphantly and claims the reward -- usually a fruit of marzipan. The rest of the dinner consists of goose stuffed with apples and prunes and served with red cabbage, caramel-browned potatoes, and lingonberry sauce. For desert there is an astonishing variety of Danish pastries and baked goods.

A bowl of the rice pudding is left out for the Julnisse - a mischievous elf who lives in the attic and plays jokes on one and all. If he is placated by the pudding, he will watch over the household throughout the year. He is closely associated with the household cat, and there are those who attribute the disappearance of the Christmas Eve rice pudding to the cat itself rather than to the nisse. These people are surely without proper Christmas spirit.

Here's an update from my friend Søren, in Tirstrup, Denmark:

In many families the rice course is that of a dessert: ris ala mande. The porridge is cooked without salt - set to cool -mixed with sugar and vanila and sliced almonds and then mixed with whipped cream and ONE whole almond is placed in it - and it is served with cherry sauce. We eat it after the fowl (turkey, duck or goose).

The night before Christmas Eve, the 23rd, is especially dear to my family. It's called by tradition "Little Christmas Eve" and signifies the very beginning of Yuletide pleasure: usually all the preparations are completed by that night.

© 2000-2002 by W. C. Egan

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