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CHRISTMAS

My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories

Growing up in Denmark has made Christmas a magical time in my childhood memories. Here are five Danish customs I look back on fondly.

My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories
File photo: Thomas Lekfeldt/Ritzau Scanpix

The Disney Christmas Show

Christmas always seemed to begin at 4pm on Christmas Eve as the Disney Christmas show flickered on to our TV screen. Everyone in the house put on smart clothes and sat on the sofa with a cup of warm gløgg [traditional Nordic mulled wine, ed.] or hot chocolate.

From All of Us to All of You is known more simply in Danish as Disney juleshow and was first broadcast in Denmark in 1967. The cartoon has become a regular Christmas tradition for many Danes, and for me it remains the sound of Christmas.

Christmas Eve dinner and the excitement about present-opening time

Roast duck, brown potatoes, boiled potatoes, gravy, red cabbage and the ‘Christmas salad’ we invented in my family were the taste of Christmas Eve at my childhood home. The dishes were all arranged in our best china and placed on the Christmas table with its candles and decorations.

READ ALSO: Why do Danes eat duck and pork at Christmas?

It looked and tasted great and very seasonal, but for us kids, it was hard to stay calm and enjoy the food, because we knew what the evening would bring – or at least what we all hoped it would. Gifts are given on the evening of Christmas Eve in Denmark – that can make the day feel long when you’re small.


File photo: Jonas Skovbjerg Fogh/Ritzau Scanpix

Risalamande

Risalamande, a cold rice pudding mixed with whipped cream, vanilla and chopped almonds served with a cherry sauce, is thought to be eaten at nine out of ten Danish Christmas dinners. 

It was always brought to our table in an orange bowl which only ever came out at Christmas: a family heirloom from my grandmother. I remember how the lights from the candles glinted against the colour of the bowl.

Before the adults put anything on their plates, my brothers and I were given ours and began chewing. Our mom had to tell us not to chew too hard or we wouldn’t find the one unchopped almond in the dessert (the one who finds the almond wins a little present). Strangely enough, I found a whole almond in my portion every year – and so did my brothers.

Meanwhile, the adults always ate so much risalamande that they ended up needing to lay down on the sofa.

Dancing around the Christmas tree

Our Christmas tree was decorated by my grandmother, with snowballs in natural designs and pretty angels. The adults took my hands and I remember having to stretch to keep hold – I felt like I was permanently making the ‘Y’ in ‘YMCA’. I can clearly remember the rough feel of my carpenter grandfather’s hand and the whole family going around and around as we faced the Christmas tree.

Suddenly we’d go one way, then the other, then back the other way. My dad always said he was getting dizzy and everyone else laughed.


Danes dancing around the Christmas tree, around 1960. File photo: Åge Sørensen/Ritzau Scanpix

A visit from Father Christmas

Santa always came to our house early on Christmas Eve – and always when my dad had to use the bathroom. There was the loud noise of a knock at the window, then at the next window and the next one. Santa was running around the house! I remember trying to run after the noise and being scared at the same time.

Suddenly a tall man in a red Christmas outfit would be standing in the doorway. He’d walk in and loudly pronounce, “Ho ho ho”! Our guest would be carrying a large bag, speak in a mumbling voice and give the children presents from his sack. One year my brother tugged at the beard, which made me feel very awkward. But Santa didn’t seem to mind.

“There are many children and I must go,” he’d say and head out into the dark. Shortly after, Dad would reappear in the kitchen, checking how the Christmas dinner was coming along.

READ ALSO: How to navigate Danish holiday traffic over the Christmas break

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CHRISTMAS

OPINION: If you can’t go home for Christmas, Denmark is a good place to be

After missing out on seeing his family for Christmas 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett got to try out Danish Christmas for the first time.

A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve.
A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve. File photo: Vibeke Toft/Ritzau Scanpix

We’d always planned to spend last Christmas in the UK. My daughter was born in March 2020, coinciding with the outset of the global coronavirus pandemic but, as worrying and uncertain as everything was at the time, we were sure it would have all settled down in nine months’ time. We started planning for her to spend her first Christmas with her grandparents, cousin and the rest of our extended family in England.

As we all know, this was far from how things turned out. The autumn and winter of last year saw spiralling Covid-19 cases across Europe and countries responding by introducing more and more restrictions, including on travel.

I’m not sure exactly when we conceded we’d have to cancel our plans to go to the UK for Christmas in 2020, but I do remember the look of resignation on my parents’ faces when I let them know. The writing had already been on the wall for a while by then.

Visiting my partner’s mother in December, I looked out of the window at the greying skies over Jutland, the dim lights of a distant Føtex store and the limp red and white pendants on flag poles as bare as the trees, and nothing felt familiar.

This was because, despite having lived in Denmark for almost a decade and a half, I’d never spent Christmas in the country. Every year I’d head home by the 22nd or 23rd, usually returning just before New Year to enjoy the rowdy firework displays in Aarhus or Copenhagen after a week of putting my feet up and savouring the familiarity and comfort of Christmas at home.

Denmark famously has its own Christmas traditions, comparable but certainly different to the British ones. I knew about them – I’ve exchanged information about national Christmas customs with many Danes over the years – but never witnessed them first-hand.

The big day came around quickly, not least because it all happens on the 24th, not the 25th.

Festivities did take a while to get going, though. Not until 4pm in fact, when ancient Disney Christmas special From All of Us to All of You, known in Danish as Disneys juleshow began on main TV broadcaster DR. Usually I’d have been watching an early-1980s David Bowie introducing The Snowman around now. A cup of warm gløgg (spiced red wine with raisins and almonds) was thrust into my hand, and I missed Bowie a little bit less.

After a couple more glasses of gløgg and wine, we sat down for Christmas dinner: roast duck, brown potatoes, boiled potatoes, gravy and red cabbage. It was of course already dark and a prolific number of candles were lit on the table and around the room, adding to the festive feeling of the star-topped tree, paper hearts and other decorations.

For dessert, we had risalamande, the popular cold rice sweet mixed with whipped cream, vanilla and chopped almonds and served with cherry sauce. By tradition, one whole almond is left in the dessert and whoever finds it wins a present, which is customarily a julegris, a chocolate pig with marzipan filling. This game is often fixed so that a child (or children) wins the prize, but the only child present was a nine-month-old and I ended up finding the almond in my bowl.

Then it was time to dance around the tree and exchange presents. Most of us had too much dessert, so it was a more sedate affair than I expected. After the little one was fast asleep we sat back on the sofas and had a couple more glasses of wine or maybe a few snacks.

It was all over before Santa traditionally lands his sleigh on rooftops and hops down British chimneys in the small hours of Christmas morning.

Danish families with young children often assign someone to dress up as Father Christmas and come round to deliver the presents to excited youngsters before dinner on Christmas Eve.

Maybe I’ll get the chance to audition for the role next year because our Danish-British family will be in Denmark every other Christmas for the foreseeable future – by choice, not restriction. I’m looking forward to it, because my first Danish Christmas gave me a better understanding of why this time of year is loved by so many Danes.

READ ALSO: My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories

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