My sister's gift calendar

My sister's gift calendar

On my very first christmas my grandmother gave me a hand made 'julekalender'- a sheet of fabric with christmas themed embroidery and the numbers 1 through 24. Beneath each number she attached a tiny plastic ring and at the bottom she put my name and birth date.

On the morning of the 1st of December kids run to their julekalender. Over night 'nissen' (Meaning 'the elf' - In Danish tradition elves aren't only Santa's helpers but also little santa-like dwarves living in the attic of every house) brought 24 small presents and attached one to each of the 24 rings.

Throughout December kids open one small present every dark drowsy morning - usually candies or small toys. My mom made me gift calendars even when I grew older and moved out; then 'nissen' left me shampoo, toilet paper and detergent instead ha-ha.

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As a kid I used to be terrified of "Hviske" and "Tiske" - two elf dolls belonging to my middle school classroom. During the year these two 'nisser' with porcelain faces and wooden clogs were locked in the teachers drawer and every December they were taken out.

Being so-called 'teasing-elves' they were basically vicious little creatures causing rampage and mess all around them. Every day one kid was chosen to bring the two dolls home for one night. We were half scared and half amused whenever we entered the classroom and found the chairs and tables all mixed up. I think our parents and teachers had more fun bringing Hviske and Tiske to live than we had cleaning up after them... 

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This very simple idea - a candle with the numbers 1 through 24 along the length - is probably one of the most incorporated Danish traditions. Every family and almost every classroom has their own countdown candle, usually decorated with pine, bows or moss in a christmas decoration. The idea is that you burn what accounts to one number (one date) every day.

The thickness of the candle seems to be proportional to how busy each family is - a thin one can burn from one date to the next in 20 minutes. My family is a giant hygge-bomb so of course we always get the thickest candle my mom can get her hands on. It takes forever to burn. It needs to be lit at least 3 hours pr day if you want to keep up with the dates.

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This is a harder one to explain but an awesome tradition that contributes to all of december feeling special and not just the christmas days. In Alex's opinion 'Christmas' as a concept refers to the 24th and 25th of December. On the other hand 'Christmas' to me starts on the 1st of december. How could it not when there's a million christmassy things to do all throughout the month?

So, the 'Christmas TV-calendar' is basically a TV show with 24 episodes showing from 1st to 24th of December. They're mostly for kids although we have hilariously inappropriate adult versions too. Each year there's usually shown both an old show and a completely new one never seen before.

The concept is what's interesting: The time in the TV show accounts to real-time. As so the first episode takes place on the 1st of December in the actual storyline. We follow the main character from the 1st of december through the month. The theme is always something christmassy like a search for a disappeared Santa Claus or stopping some villain from sabotaging Christmas. The shows have grown increasingly more modern over the years - this year the new show is about a kid traveling back in time to make sure time-traveling is invented in the first place... I'm sure there's a christmas theme in there somewhere...

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It is said that H.C. Andersen was in fact the inventor of this very classical christmas ornament - the braided hearts. 
Traditionally these home-made paper hearts were hung on the christmas three and cookies were places in them as each has a small compartment. In some of our old carols the expression "eating the christmas tree" is used because of this.

Today is is not so common to fill the hearts with sweets but we still make them. It is a fun activity for everybody and there are eternal ways to 'braid' patterns into these beautiful christmas ornaments. 

Here's a step-by-step guide to make you own...

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Actually the decoration foraging usually takes place around the end of November. We go to the woods to collect pine branches, moss, pretty leaves and whatever else we can find. Then the family gathers to make decorations.

Well, most of the time we're too lazy to go foraging, but we always have tons of gold sprayed pine branches from the previous years anyway. 

Each person makes at least one decoration usually positioned on a log or in a small pot or basket. A ball of clay holds the candle(s), branches, cinnamon sticks or anything else your using for decorating. Et voila! The whole family has a bunch of moss with candles that they can put around the house to spread hygge throughout December. Never mind the mess...

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 'Snowfall' on the city square 2011

'Snowfall' on the city square 2011

"J-day" might not make much sense to you but to all Danes, especially the youth, it does! The "J" stands for "Juleøl" (Christmas-brew) and J-day is the day that Tuborg releases their infamous christmas edition. Yes, it's the same regular pilsner every year, but who doesn't like an excuse to go crazy and get drunk?

This tradition didn't start until Tuborg announced the first J-day in 1990 as a part of a marketing campaign but never the less it's a huge event today, especially in Copenhagen where large trucks spread white foam ('snow') on a lot of big squares. The Danish police even arranges special drunk-driving controls on this day.

J-day officially falls on the first friday of November.

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We Danes love crafting in case you haven't noticed. So of course DIY christmas ornaments are a must. 

The 'Cut-and-glue' day is mostly a primary and middle school thing. On this day there are no lessons. Instead every classroom receives a large supply of colored paper, glue and scissors and all the kids show up wearing santa-hats. 

While the teachers hand out christmas cookies everybody's braiding hearts, folding stars and making paper garlands, competing to make the longest one. One time my class made a paper garland long enough to reach around our building. 

Here's a guide to make your own hearts like the ones in the picture...

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A Yule Goat or Julebuk is today a goat made out of hay and held together by red ribbon. Back in the days it was believed that the Julebuk was evil as it represented all the 'bad' things such as ghosts, misfortune and hell. Therefore it was treated with respect and sometimes even fed. The above is how my grandmother explained it to me but this specific Nordic tradition has changed a lot throughout the years. Before Santa Claus the yule goat had the role as the gift bringer and at one point a 'Julebuk' was instead a person dressing up as a goat and pranking people during christmas.

The Julebuk tradition is an example one one that is no longer very common at all. People still associate the hay figure with christmas and use them for ornaments, but there are no longer any certain rituals around them. Never the less I succeeded in making my little sister believe it was the mean Julebuk who had eaten her chocolates when we were kids...

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The most christmassy christmas dish in Danish tradition is "Risengrød" (Literally rice-porridge). It's a warm porridge made from almost exclusively rice and full-fat milk. The porridge is served with a scoop of butter as well as ground cinnamon and sugar on top. It might sound boring but it's actually a savory dish which fills you up with 'hygge'.

Throughout December we usually have risengrød for dinner once or twice. And each time my mother would set aside one bowl. She'd prepare it with butter and cinnamon and everything and together we'd go upstairs and climb up the ladder to the attic. We'd put the bowl on the floor right next to the stairs and go back down. 
The next morning I'd run upstairs to find the bowl empty with dried-in porridge and cinnamon scraped up the edges. I loved feeding the Nisse.

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Hanging stockings? Nah - socks go on feet. As a small kid you'll usually have a gift calendar but when you grow older it seems a bit over the top to get 24 tiny presents. Instead the Nisse will leave advent presents for you - a gift on each sunday. 

The December sundays are special. They're the 'advents' meaning that you light one new advent candle each sunday. In my family we have a big Christmas lunch every year on the first sunday of advent.

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"Dette brev, som jeg skrev, sender jeg gennem stjernernes vrimmel, mod den syvende himmel. Med vindens sus til julemandens hus!"
(Translation: "This note which I wrote I send through the swarm of stars towards the seventh heaven. Carried on the wind to Santa Claus' house!")

This rhyme was made famous from a Christmas TV show from the 90's. The main character's little brother each night goes to the window in the attic and says these words before throwing his unreadable scribbles ('krims-krams') into the night. Still to this day we say this rhyme before my brother throws his wish-list for Santa Claus out the window.

Although this is a very very new tradition and probably not widely practiced I must admit I think it's incredibly cute. Also it's a convenient way of figuring out what he wants for christmas (when my brother learned to write comprehensively that is). We just had to go outside and pick up his little note from a water puddle.

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 Middle school Lucia. I'm the one on the far right.

Middle school Lucia. I'm the one on the far right.

Although Danes technically belong to the protestant church, almost no Danes practice religion. With the exception of the yearly christmas service most of us never go to church. Therefore you wont be surprised to hear that "Sankta Lucia" (Saint Lucy) doesn't give us any associations to the actual Saint Lucy who lived from year 283-304 and was a young Christian martyr who died during the Diocletianic Persecution.

Instead we think about candles and white dresses. The 13th of december is her feast day and although we don't celebrate most saints, somehow Saint Lucy's day became incorporated into our christmas traditions. On this day kindergardeners and middle schoolers, sometimes even adults, dress up in all white to "walk the Lucia". 

The Lucia walk is a slow parade of white garments and candles. In front the Lucia bride (The tallest of the girls) is wearing a crown with four lit candles on it. Everybody else is holding one candle in their hands and walk slowly and rhythmically after her. While the parade is moving they're singing the Lucia song, a sad and quiet carol. If you want to see how this ghost-like elegant and singing parade looks in real life I found a clip here...

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Once during the christmas month a family usually sits down and makes homemade confectionery. Basically it involves a whole lot of marzipan and nougat as well as nuts, sprinkles, frosting, melted chocolate and anything else you can use for decorating the small 'konfekt'. 

It is a 'hyggelig' tradition where everybody's attempting to be the most creative and colorful in creating cute little candies. Come christmas  day our mother brings out the boxes of confectionery for everyone to enjoy. Don't be fooled - the beautiful big creations are usually the last ones standing as they're mostly marzipan. Go for the stuff with the most nougat in it!

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'Elf friends' (Nisse venner) is the Danish version of 'Secret Santa'. In Denmark it's mostly arranged by middle school teachers for their students though, and less commonly by adult groups. Just like Secret Santa the game is about giving gifts to the person you were assigned to, without them knowing who you are. Then at the end of the month everybody has to guess, and if someone is not guessed by their gift-receiver he or she wins the honor of being good at being sneaky... 

Maybe contrarily to 'Secret Santa' the game of 'Nisse venner' is very focused on distracting/misguiding your subject so they wont guess who you are. Also you're expected to not only give gifts but also mess with them a bit. This is the best part of the game; getting creative with duct tape or snow-spray is extremely fun.

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Alex was surprised to find that I'd never heard about gingerbread in my life.
On the other hand I can probably mention 10 different cookies that Danes bake for christmas that he never heard of. Baking is a big part of the holiday and, at least where I'm from, a family activity. Most years we arrange 'bake-days' and we all help our mom and grandma bake all the classics. 

These are the most traditional Danish christmas cookies:
Vaniliekranse (Means 'vanilla rings' - vanilla butter cookies)
Klejner (Deep fried spice cookies)
Pebernødder (Means 'pepper nuts' - small ball shaped spice cookies)
Brunkager (Means 'brown cakes' - a lot like gingerbread cookies yet not quite)
Jødekager (Means 'Jew cakes' - cinnamon and sugar dusted shortbread)
Honningkager (Means 'honey cakes' - chocolate dipped honey and spice cake)

We all love our Danish Christmas cookies, but in complete honesty more and more peanut-butter-cookies, pecan-pies and fudge-brownies has appeared on our cookie trays the past few years. All home made of course. In case you haven't noticed Danes aren't big fans of pre-made stuff.
I never had a not-homemade birthday cake in my life. Come to think of it, I don't think I'd ever seen pre-made birthday cakes until I came to the States.

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The Christmas Lunch (Julefrokost) is probably one of the most loved traditions. Who doesn't love eating and drinking? A Christmas lunch is a gathering of not only families but more often colleagues, friend-groups, sports-teams or classmates to celebrate the holiday. 

Denmark doesn't have a lot of traditional hot dishes. Instead we are known for our pastry and our rye bread sandwiches and the last is the theme of a 'julefrokost'. Thy involve large buffets of all the classic toppings for rye bread sandwiches and other traditional lunch items as well as huge amounts of beer and Danish schnapps. This food and drink orgy is supplemented by fun party games and sometimes costumes. Overall the Christmas lunches are the party-like celebrations, drowned in alcohol and inappropriate flirting to counter-weight all of the cute and cozy family traditions.

In 2009 the Danish movie 'Julefrokosten' came out. It's a comedy revolving around an office Christmas Lunch. Here's a little clip... Don't worry we're usually not that crazy...

Æbleskiver is a Danish christmas dessert that directly translates to "apple slices". A more appropriate and commonly used name is "pancake balls" though. Using specialized pans with round half-globe indents we create these balls of sweet dough. Back in the days it was custom to add one slice of apple to the center, hence the name, but no one really does that anymore. 

Apple slices to many have the flavour of christmas. This is what we serve for gatherings, christmas lunches, family celebrations and in street vendors all throughout christmas. The most traditional way of serving it is on a plate containing around three balls, strawberry jam and powdered sugar. It is often served with glogg.

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Raindeer, gifts to all children of the world, red suit and ho-ho-ho - check. But as I already established Santa lives in Greenland - NOT on the North Pole... At least that's what we say. Apart from that little variation we have one other strange tradition concerning Santa Claus:

Sitting on Santa's lap in a mall is not really a thing in Denmark. On the other hand a lot of families (the ones with small children) have one of the older family members dress up like santa on Christmas eve. Just before we all dance around the tree and sing songs (more about that later...) the kids gather by the garden door to yell Santa Claus's name into the darkness (In Danish he is "Julemand" meaning Christmas-man). Only when the kids scream loud enough he will appear from the back of the garden carrying a gift for each of the kids and joining the family for the first dance around the tree. Don't ask me how that fits with the whole traveling-around-the-globe-on-a-sleigh thing.

It didn't take many years before I realized why my granddad had a habit of "having a headache", "going to the bathroom" or "getting more beer in the shed" whenever Santa would come to visit. But it was, and still is, fun. I just got two little cousins so I hope we'll pick the tradition back up although most of the kids in my family are older now...

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I never heard of eggnog before I met Alex. In Denmark the christmas drink is "glögg". Glögg is basically hot red wine added cinnamon, raisins and split almonds. It does taste very christmassy and the warm drink goes well with "æbleskiver" (apple slices/pancake balls) but personally it is not my favorite. I enjoy fishing the small wine-soaked raisins and almond pieces out of there though...

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We all have certain movies and TV shows we associate with christmas. But you might be surprised that even though Danes almost exclusively watch American movies, it's not the same movies we consider a must-see during christmas as most Americans.
Examples of Danish christmas favorites are: 
Love Actually
The Holiday
The Polar Express
Home Alone

But above all there's one show no one misses and I was very surprised to hear that Alex had never heard of it. On Christmas day "Disney's christmas show" is sent on the most major Danish TV channel and the whole country gathers to watch it.
Jiminy Cricket is the host of this animated show and he presents christmas postcards sent from all the classic Disney characters such as Lady and the tramp, Snow white, Bambi and so one. With each postcard follows the most epic scene from the old movie in question. 
Most of the show is the same every year as they're the same postcards from the same Disney classics. But then at the end there's a "surprise" which is a showing of a clip from a new Disney movie. 

I don't think I've missed "Disney's Christmas Show" (In America called "From all of us to all of you") in my entire life.

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A gift raffle is not purely a Danish tradition. Most people know of something similar it seems, maybe with a few modifications. 

In Denmark the gift raffle can take place at christmas lunches or family gatherings and the rules are as follow:

  • Each player brings a certain amount of small cheap presents and all go in the middle of a table
  • One or two cups with one dice in each is passed around and each player gets one turn before passing the cup on
  • In the first round you are allowed to grab a present if you get a 6
  • After all presents are taken form the table it is time for next round
  • A selected person sets a timer without telling anyone when it will go off. Usually it's set to somewhere in between 10 and 20 minutes.
  • After the timer has started, the second round begins and now a 6 allows you to steal a present from someone else
  • When the timer goes off the game is over and everyone can open the present(s) they won

In some families the third round is the trading-round where everyone is free to trade gifts after they're all open. Also some people has an extra rule saying you can't steal the last present a person has. Anyway it's seriously fun, and the atmosphere around the table usually turns hilariously revengeful, hectic and frantic during the second round.

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So, I already explained risengrød - the hot rice and full-fat milk porridge. Ris a la mande is a french dish that you make from day-old risengrød. You add chopped almonds, vanilla and a whole lot of whipped cream to the risengrød and it turns into Ris a la mande, which is served on christmas eve with hot cherry sauce. (Here's a recipe)

Anyway - here comes the fun part! Whoever makes this dessert for the christmas family dinner saves ONE almond that is left whole. After all the chopped almonds are added and the dish is finished this last whole almond is stirred into the creamy dessert.

Now the race begins - whoever gets the almond wins the "almond present". Only the chef knows what it is but it is usually of a decent quality and everyone wants it. 

As a result the christmas dessert is eaten slowly - each spoonful is carefully felt out in the mouth to make sure there's no whole almond before chewing. It is also eaten rather quietly as everyone is eying each other to see if someone else get's the almond. People have a habit of hiding the almond if they find it. The one finding the almond doesn't scream out in victory but usually keeps the secret to himself until he's watched his entire family choke on the last few bites, determined to eat up in an attempt to win the present. A strange and fun tradition. Bon Apetit!

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The 24th is Christmas for Danes. There's no such thing as opening gifts christmas morning. After dinner on the 24th the entire family opens presents together - one at a time, thanking each other and participating in each other's joy. But before we do this we have one tradition that is the peak of christmas to us: dancing around the tree.

This might seem odd, but it's just a matter of holding each other's hands forming a circle around the tree and the walking slowly while singing 5-10 classic carols together. They're such extraordinary serene minutes, walking around the beautiful Christmas Tree while forming a circle of your loved ones. In some families Santa Claus participates, that is if the kids called him in from the garden...

Merry Christmas from Denmark.

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