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DANISH HABITS

Friday 13th: Do Danes believe in ghosts and ‘nisser’?

On Friday the 13th, we look at how common it is in Denmark to believe in ghosts (and zombies), why it's a shame people still think black cats are unlucky, and where the phrase "7-9-13" comes from.

Friday 13th: Do Danes believe in ghosts and 'nisser'?
Black cats are a feature of Danish superstitions. Photo by Phil Baum on Unsplash

Danes are typically considered sensible in nature, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their superstitions. 

For instance, did you know that around one in seven people in Denmark believe in ghosts? And that almost 60 percent say “7-9-13” when talking about something that they don’t want to happen?

We break down some of the most commonly-held Danish superstitions. 

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Though common in Denmark, the belief that a broken mirror brings bad luck is hardly unique to the Danes. In fact, this one has been around since ancient Romans, the very first people to make glass mirrors. They believed that a mirror could capture one’s soul and thus an image distorted by a broken mirror would also mean that the viewer’s very soul had been corrupted. 

Hotel D’Angleterre in Copenhagen during the 2022 Tour de France. Photo: Martin Sylvest/Ritzau Scanpix

Coming to Copenhagen to spend a night in the city’s most exclusive hotel? Don’t expect to stay in room 13. Like most Danish hotels, you won’t find a room 13 in Hotel D’Angleterre, where a spokesperson told Religion.dk in 2013 that “everyone should have a good experience when they stay with us and there are still people who don’t think it’s fun to sleep in room 13”. 

Similarly, airline SAS has neither a row nor seat numbered 13 on its aircraft, apart from a few smaller planes, it said at the time. The decision was made out of “commercial considerations” to passengers, a spokesperson said.

“7-9-13”

While many cultures have superstitions about the number 13, Danes have one that adds two extra numbers to the equation.

When a Dane says something like “I’m so glad my grandmother still has her health” or “I think I really aced that job interview today”, they might follow it up by saying “7-9-13″ (syv-ni-tretten) and three knocks on wood – one for each number.

Where does this superstition come from?

Science media Videnskab wrote in 2012 that the phrase is “a strange combination of lucky and unlucky numbers that were put together for a reason that no one knows by unknown people”, but is a relatively new superstition which probably doesn’t date further back than the early 20th century.

The more universal 13 was possibly added later.

Photo: Anne Bæk/Ritzau Scanpix

Small mythical creatures known as nisser (elves) are quite popular in Denmark, especially around Christmas time when they come to play tricks and eat your porridge.

Nisser are taken seriously enough that funding was given in 2014 to a research project into ‘under-earthlings’ rumoured to inhabit the island of Bornholm.

According to a 2008 Gallup survey, 37 percent of Danes believe in the existence of ghosts or spirits, although an Aarhus University report reached a figure of 14 percent more recently, in 2018. The latter figure means a smaller proportion of the population in Denmark believes in ghosts than in the UK or USA, where 40 and 37 percent respectively said they believed in supernatural beings in compared studies.

Around 30 percent of Danes told researchers from Aarhus University that they believe humans have souls or psychic “essences”.

Perhaps reassuringly, a much smaller number — 0.64 percent — said they believe zombies exist.

Black cats are a feature of Danish superstitions. Photo by Phil Baum on Unsplash

In ancient Egypt, black cats were sacred and valued creatures, but by the Middle Ages, cats – and particularly black ones – were seen as accomplices of devils and witches.

Even today, in a modern society filled with people who go around watching cat videos on their phones, it’s considered bad luck if a black cat crosses one’s path. 

Denmark is no exception here, with as many as one in three reported to consider it a portent of ill fortune if they see such a feline on their way.

Charity Animal Protection Denmark has said that black cats usually spend longer at their shelters before finding a new home, suggesting the superstition really can influence people’s decisions.

“It’s a real shame that black cats are left at our shelters longer than other cats. They are lovely animals in just the same way as other animals,” the charity’s head of family pets Jens Jokumsen says on the organisation’s website.

An earlier version of this article was first published in February 2015

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READER INSIGHTS

READERS REVEAL: What are the barriers to a successful relationship with a Dane?

We've had more than 100 responses to our survey on the cultural challenges faced by foreigners in long-term relationships with Danes. Here's what you had to say.

READERS REVEAL: What are the barriers to a successful relationship with a Dane?

More than 85 percent of the 110 respondents so far were women, fully three-quarters of whom were either living with or married to a male Dane, which at times can make it hard to know for sure if it is Danishness or maleness that is the problem. 

And as the respondents came from across the world, the cultural clashes they described varied largely depending on where the non-Dane in the relationship came from.

A Dutch respondent, for instance, complained that she was too blunt and direct for their Dane, whereas for almost every other nationality, it was the Dane who was felt to be too curt and abrupt. 

About 16 respondents came from Western Europe, 15 from North America, and Eastern Europe, twelve from each of Latin America and the UK/US, six from Asia, one from South Asia, two from other Nordic countries, two from Africa, and one from Turkey. 

We should note that our survey asked for personal experiences and views and is therefore anecdotal in nature and not based on any kind of scientific approach.

Poor communicators, emotionally reserved, and passive

By far the most common complaint respondents made about their Danish partner — which seemed to come from almost all nationalities — was that they were emotionally reserved, passive and found it hard to communicate their feelings. 

“He runs away from conflict and has a hard time explaining how he feels in different situations,” complained Georgiana, from Romania,

“I find Danes a bit closed off when it comes to expressing feelings,” agreed one Turkish woman with a Danish boyfriend. 

One Slovenian woman felt that the biggest culture clash came from her husband “not making his feelings known enough, which I think comes with the colder Danish exterior.” 

One US woman moaned about her husband’s “passive-aggressive behaviour” and “inability to provide clear answers to direct questions or to communicate or express own opinions in a constructive manner”. 

Several respondents felt that if they raised their voice or expressed emotion in a discussion, their partner would shut them off. 

“Raising your voice and reasonable confrontation is seen as aggression as opposed to just as “normal” different cultural behaviour,” said one Latvian woman. 

A lot of these complaints are obviously ones that women all over the world make about their husbands and partners, making it difficult to judge if Danes really are considerably more emotionally withdrawn. 

One of the few male respondents did, however, make the exact same criticism of their partner. “It takes him much time to be open about his feelings and emotions, which makes me always doubt if we are both together are on the same page,” he wrote.  

One American woman, meanwhile, suggested that the lack of emotional communication extended to her entire half Danish family as well.

“Danish families don’t say ‘I love you’,” she said. “We Italian Americans say it all the time. And yes, we mean it.” 

Where’s the romance?

One Brazilian woman complained of “a lack of romance” in her relationship. “Everything is too straightforward and square.” 

“Don’t expect a lot of wishy-washy romance,” Ann, from Scotland, warned other women coming to Denmark. Cris, a nurse, said her Dane was “not a believer in romantic occasions like Valentine’s Day”.

“He’s so practical that I have to remind myself that he shows me he loves me through little, everyday things as opposed to big romantic gestures,” said Amy, from the US. 

“It took a lot of time for him to say ‘I love you’,” Veronika, from Hungary, agreed. “Even when I said it, he replied with an, ‘I like you’, which he said first, and very frequently.” 

She said she later found out that “jeg elsker dig” is something only rarely said in Denmark and that “jeg kan godt lide dig” would be most common among Danish boyfriend and girlfriends. 

“Now he uses both, and in Danish and English too. But it took a lot of time.”

The complaint about a lack of romance extends to the sort of chivalrous behaviour women in many other countries expect from men. 

“He thinks it is weird that I think it is his duty as a gentleman to pay for dates and to pick me up at home,” claimed one woman, who wanted to be anonymous. 

“He doesn’t help me to carry things, doesn’t ask parents or grandparents when they carry heavy things or strangers when they are in trouble on the street if they need help,” echoed one woman from Vietnam. 

Others complained that on the dating scene, Danish men often expected women to take the initiative. 

“Danish men are extremely passive. They take no initiative and therefore no responsibility,” said Sylvia. “A woman needs to chase him otherwise he will not do anything. Bear in mind that this passiveness and lack of accountability will continue in your relationship.”

Often a lack of chivalry comes together with more equal gender roles, but many respondents complained that, at least in the home, this had not turned out to be the case with their partner. 

Amy protested against her partner’s “conviction that there is no need for feminist/gender equality movements in Denmark” because women receive equal pay. This was, she pointed out, “even though the burden of household chores falls on me”. 

READ ALSO: Danish study concludes women earn less than men for same jobs

A Scottish woman said she had found that Danes had “stricter gender norms when it comes to children” than back home in the UK, particularly when it came to decisions over whether to have or not to have them. 

Oh, the irony!

Danes prize themselves on their dry humour, but it isn’t always appreciated by their partners. “Danish humour is mean sometimes, but they just say it’s irony,” one South African woman pointed out, while a woman from Sweden said she too struggled with “humour that sometimes is hurtful in its sarcasm”. 

“He always blames Danish dark humour to get out of an argument. He says what he says and then says, ‘I’m joking’. But where is the funny part?” complains one woman who described herself as a “global citizen”. “And if I give him a taste of his own medicine, then he is hurt.”

“People in Denmark tend to cross the line when making jokes to people, my partner does the same and it is seen as rude,” said one woman from Mexico, who found her Danish husband’s sense of humour embarrassing. 

One anonymous Frenchwoman managed to get her own back, however.

Danish humour, she suggested, was a bit unsophisticated compared to what she was used to at home. 

“They miss sometimes the second and third degrees of humour, compared to France,” she declared.

No time for spontaneous activities or meeting new people

Another very common complaint was that the Dane in the foreigner’s life had to plan every activity far in advance. 

One South American woman said that her husband’s “rigidity when it comes to routines” had been very difficult to come to terms with. “Laundry day is only Sundays; dinner is at 18.30, planning with months of anticipation.” 

It is “frustrating when your partner plans six months ahead what he is going to do every day”, complained Naika, from Peru. 

Several respondents also said they got frustrated that their Danish partner showed such little interest in meeting new people. 

“Making new friends outside his close-knit childhood friends was unheard of,” said an American woman who was married to a Dane for eight years. “Just because people were friends when they were kids doesn’t mean they should be friends when they become adults or should be closed to new friendships.” 

Joe, a male American, had had much the same experience. “The biggest difference is the inability of many Danes to open up to new friends – many adults still have their childhood friends and those relations don’t welcome in new adults easily.”

“A lot of his family and close friends actively ignore me when we hang out,” said a woman from central Europe. “I’ve known them for a couple of years now and some of them still haven’t talked to me once.”

Several foreigners said they also found it ridiculous that their Danish partner was so unwilling to talk to strangers, even to ask for directions. 

“He will avoid interaction with strangers at all costs,” said one woman from Greece. “He won’t ask for directions. He’d rather look around for more than ten minutes.” 

Obsession with Danish social rituals 

Foreigners in long-term relationships with Danes also struggled with the complex rituals Danes fall back on at social events like family dinners, Christmas and birthdays. 

“The amount of Danish birthdays and birthday songs. Gosh!” exclaimed Maria. 

One Dutchwoman was astonished by “the need to thank for everything….. tak for mad, tak for sidst, tak for…..” 

More generally, foreigners complained that their partner and their families were completely uncomprehending of the idea that there was any other way to do things than ‘the Danish way’. 

When it came to family events, one of the Scottish respondents complained of the “strict traditions” and “expectations from family to participate in specific ways”. 

One US woman complained less about the nature of Danish family events than about how many of them there seemed to be, at all of which attendance appeared to be more or less compulsory. 

The Danish way is the only way

Many foreigners felt frustration at their partner’s apparent inability to question or deviate from the set Danish patterns of behaviour. 

“Blindly following anything Danish is my main source of irritation with my wife,” said a British long-term resident. “But I have learned to live with it, for the sake of peace and quiet.” 

“Only the Danish way to do things is right,” agreed Jeanette, who didn’t say where she came from. “Danes are seldom open to new ways to do stuff. For instance, it is considered bad that my daughter only started at daycare aged two and a half”. 

Related complaints were about Danish partner’s complete faith in Denmark’s government and agencies and about their obsession with Arne Jacobsen chairs, and other Danish design classics. 

An American woman said her husband was “too passive and naive about politics and ‘the system'”. 

Hyggeracisme

Many respondents, particularly those from the US, said they had been horrified by the casual racism expressed by their partner’s family over dinner, a phenomenon which has been given the name hyggeracisme, “hygge racism”, in Denmark.

“Danes are clueless about racism and sometimes they say racist things without even blinking an eye, or if pointed out they do not see it at all,” said one American woman living in Copenhagen. 

“I was raised believing it’s rude to openly discuss politics, religion, sex, or money,” another American woman added. “These are things he and his family argue about over dinner. They use dirtier language and are more openly ablest, ageist, xenophobic and racist.”

How to overcome the cultural divide?

Use humour 

Many respondents argued that having a sense of humour went a long way in smoothing over cultural gaps with Danes. 

“Point out weird things about Danes in a lighthearted manner,” said one woman, who didn’t say where she came from. “They will take it as a joke and like it.”

“Often, I just accept the little quirks or make fun of it, and my partner does the same with my quirks,” says Franziska from Germany. 

“Be open. Laugh. Don’t take them to seriously. Love them for their good parts, forgive the stupid parts,” says Elin from Sweden. “Laugh at their jokes. It doesn’t matter if they are funny or not. They believe they invented irony, so if you don’t find it funny, you are a lost cause.”

One woman from the UK said that sharing “a sarcastic sense of humour” helped her in her relationship with a Dane. “The similarities in our sense of humour are what get us through everything.”

Don’t expect the Dane to pick up on hints 

Amy said that the most important thing she had learned in her relationship was the importance of very clear communication.

“He expects that I will tell him something important. He will not guess and does not often ask,” she said. 

“Sometimes they are just totally unaware, so addressing it head-on helps my partner understand when they have said or done something hurtful or offensive,” agreed a British-American Local reader. 

“Be direct and say it as it is,” said Joy from Ireland. “Understand the context behind everything your partner does, so you can avoid misunderstandings.”

Embrace Danish hygge traditions

As should be well-known to anyone who has not been living in a cave for the past decade, Danes prize hygge, a sense of wellbeing, togetherness and familiarity, together with all the traditions that go with it. 

This means anyone marrying into the society will have to adopt as many of these traditions as they can, or risk destroying the atmosphere at every social or family time. 

A Polish woman said she had come to approach the Danish approach. 

“I love that the family is more important than work or financial status. The feeling of hygge here and now is the best thing that you can do when you have a family or kids,” she said. “My danish partner has told me that every little moment of hygge is important as a family and also in every kind of relationship.”

“Be ready to grow and experience the world together, but never neglect the hygge moments at home,” agreed a woman from a Baltic country. 

Learn adequate Danish 

While one respondent complained that for many Danes, speaking Danish with an accent counts as not speaking Danish, many were agreed that learning the language was important for making your relationship with a Dane a success. 

“It helps to understand/speak Danish so your partner is not your translator, but you don’t have to be perfect,” said one American. 

“Try to speak at least a little Danish. Ask them to speak Danish not English to you. It’s always appreciated,” said Anton, from England. 

Embrace Danish culture 

“Be ready to compromise a lot, especially if your culture is significantly different from theirs,” recommended one woman from Bulgaria. “They probably won’t change their ways so you’ll have to,” 

“Be interested in the culture and traditions. Follow Danish news as well as American and world news,” said one American pensioner. “Explore Denmark (and the world) together. Ask questions about traditions and expected norms and behaviors before going to parties or special events like family Christmas.” 

“Liking black licorice and having an open mind,” said another American, while acknowledging that dancing around the Christmas tree, bonfires, witch burning, and lent, are “weird at first”. 

There is no limit to how far you can go in embracing Danishness, argued Kerstin, from Germany.

“Become as Danish as you can.”  

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