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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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FAMILY

Five Danish children’s songs international parents will inevitably have to learn

Some are ear worms, some are repeated endlessly, and some might even help grown-ups to relax after a busy day. Sooner or later, even international parents will learn these Danish children's songs. You may as well start now.

Five Danish children’s songs international parents will inevitably have to learn

Godnatsangen 

Nu er solen gået i seng

Udenfor står natten på spring

Vi skal sove nu

Vil skal hvile vores krop for i morgen skal vi op

“Now the sun has gone to bed, the night is waiting outside, we must sleep now, we must rest ourselves, for tomorrow we’ll get up”.

Popular entertainer Sigurd Barrett (no relation to the author of this article, although many, many Danes have asked me) has a long back catalogue of kids’ songs but this lullaby is probably the most played and definitely the most relaxing.

It has an excellent track record for getting tired toddlers to sleep in cars (based on my sample size of one) and its gentle piano melody even lulls mums and dads after a long day.

Elefantens vuggevise

A lullaby about bedtime for elephants, ostriches and rhinos, this song has been around for decades and has seen several versions since it was written in 1948 by Harald Andreas Hartvig Lund.

There are several popular versions, including by legendary singer Kim Larsen and a more recent one by Sys Bjerre.

Its lyrics paint a vivid and wonderful picture of zebras in pyjamas, flying squirrels and cribs made of green bananas. I wonder how many exciting dreams kids have after being sung to sleep to the adventures of little Jumbo the elephant.

I dag er det Oles fødselsdag

The classic birthday song “Happy Birthday to You” has variations in many languages. In Denmark, however, you’ll find yourself at birthday parties singing a version of I dag er det Oles fødselsdag (“Today it’s Ole’s Birthday”), with the birthday boy or girl’s name replacing “Ole” in the title and lyrics.

The text and melody were written in 1913, so the song has been around for generations and part of its popularity is the fact that you can switch out the original name for that of whoever’s birthday it is.

While you can also personalise the English version of “Happy Birthday”, that’s not the case in all language versions of that song. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why a different birthday song caught on in Denmark.

Now sing after me: hun sikker sig en gave får, som hun har ønsket sig i år
med dejlig chokolade og gaver til

Der sad to katte på et bord

I might as well apologise now for annoying you for the rest of the day and probably tomorrow too, because this is the ultimate in ear worms. I’m sorry.

A sweet tale about to two cats who address each other as “my friend” and can’t decide whether to sit on the table or the floor, it’s the Kritte vitte vitte vit bum bum refrain between lines that will really get into your head. Kids love it.

You can listen to the song below, if you dare. 

Langt ud’ i skoven lå et lille bjerg

Like the previous entry, this song has a repetitive element to it. Its title translates to “Deep in the forest there was a little mountain”.

Each version adds an element to the description in the title: a tree on the mountain, a branch on the tree, a twig on the branch, a leaf on the twig and so forth.

It’s a fun one to sing with kids because they enjoy the play element of trying to remember the new part on each repeat. By the end, it gets very long and can descend into farce.

These five songs do not even begin to form an exhaustive list of Denmark’s wide, wide, wide repertoire of children’s songs. Which ones can you not get out of your head? Which means something special for you or your children? Let us know in the comments below!

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