For any foreigner married or related somehow to a Dane, you may be familiar with a slightly awkward rite of passage in Denmark. It usually strikes at a birthday party or some other special holiday or occasion.
The first time it happened to me, I was definitely unprepared. It was during the birthday celebration of a friend. There was the classic festive Danish scene of a long rectangular table with a red and white-checkered flag tablecloth unfurled beneath 20 or so place settings. The table was dotted with candles, and more Danish flag and heart decorations (one can never get enough of these in Denmark). The food and the wine came out and we all settled in for a long evening of “hygge”.
See also: Enough with the hygge already!
The meal and the drinking got underway and then came the customary speeches. Not being a mother tongue Danish speaker or a best friend of the host, I knew I wasn't going to be called upon to contribute so I felt pretty relaxed. That is, until little homemade books were handed out.
“What are these?” I asked.
“Oh? Who is going to be singing?”
“We all are!”
Now let me just preface this by saying I am not a big fan of public singing. I generally try to keep my singing voice reserved for private concerts in the shower. Thus, the idea of participating in a group chorus with people I barely knew was not exactly on my bucket list. I guzzled my wine and promptly refilled.
The music started playing and everyone jovially broke out into the first verse. I felt like I was being pushed out of an airplane. Pull the chord! Sing! Sing! These were common well-known tunes with words that had been written to match the melody. I felt I had a choice: get busy singing or get busy crying.
Once it was over, I have to admit I felt pretty good. The songs were hilarious and there was a wonderful sensation about singing and laughing with the others. The experience showed me another side of “hygge” I hadn't seen before and got me thinking. Could group singing be yet another contributing factor to the Danes' wellbeing?
In general, Danes really do love to sing. Whether it's Christmas, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, confirmations or really any good festive excuse, they aren't afraid to create words to popular tunes or bust out the national Danish songbook, which has a song for every occasion. And no one bats an eye or seems to feel stupid about this because it's just part of the culture.
Interestingly enough, while studying this phenomenon for our book ‘The Danish Way of Parenting' it became clear that research backs up the fact that group singing together is good for one's wellbeing
Nick Stewart, from Oxford Brookes University has conducted studies on choir singers and found that not only does singing together make people happier, it also makes them feel that they are a part of a meaningful group. The synchronicity of moving and breathing while singing together creates a strong feeling of connectedness. Singing together releases the ‘happy' hormone oxytocin, which lowers stress and increases feelings of trust and bonding.
I wonder, if we all made an effort to sing more together at family gatherings would we have less discord?
After 14 years married to a Dane, I now belt out tunes with my Danish family and friends like a born-again folk singer. I still feel silly about it sometimes but the good far outweighs the bad and I can see how much my children revel in this pastime. I know they will grow up to be freer with their voices in every sense then I was, and their ability to “hygge” will become second nature to them.
And I think that's a Danish rite of passage worth singing about.
Jessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated by cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children. Her book can be purchased via Amazon and Saxo.