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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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How do Danes celebrate on Christmas Eve?

Christmas is celebrated on December 24th in Denmark, with present exchanging happening late in the day. Here's all you need to know about a Danish Christmas.

How do Danes celebrate on Christmas Eve?

Christmas Eve (Juleaften) is the date of excitement across households in Denmark. But despite the Christmas celebrations coming a day earlier than in most Anglophone countries, there is a bit of a waiting game, as everything happens in the late afternoon and evening.


The Christmas Eve traditions may start for some families when they attend the afternoon service at church.

Christmas Eve Order of Service
A Christmas Eve Order of Service for Tved Church on Funen, Thursday 24th December 2020. Photo: Tim Kildeborg Jensen/Ritzau Scanpix


Many families will sit down together with a glass of gløgg (a traditional Nordic mulled wine) or hot chocolate to watch the Disney Christmas Show on TV broadcaster DR at 4pm. The Disney classic shown is called From All of Us to All of You, known in Danish as Disneys juleshow.


As in many countries, food is a focal point of celebrating Christmas in Denmark. The Christmas meal (julemiddag) is traditionally eaten in the evening. It consists of roast duck and/or pork, boiled or sugar-browned potatoes, sautéed red cabbage and gravy. The duck is sometimes stuffed with apples and prunes, which are then served separately.

Danish Christmas Eve dinner
A traditional Christmas Eve meal in Denmark. Photo: Vibeke Toft/Ritzau Scanpix

An estimated three out of four Danes eat duck on Christmas Eve, while 60 percent eat pork, meaning many eat both.

Dessert is something called risalamande, which is like a rice pudding mixed with whipped cream, vanilla, chopped almonds and served with warm cherry sauce. One whole almond is left in the dessert and whoever finds it wins a present, which is usually a julegris, a chocolate pig with marzipan filling. This game is often fixed so that a child (or children) wins the prize.

READ ALSO: Danish word of the day: Marcipangris

Danish Christmas dessert Risalamande
Risalamande with kirsebærsovs. Photo: Vibeke Toft/Ritzau Scanpix

The drink of course involves schnapps, as well as wine and beer, with many opportunities to toast skål and drink some more. 

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

Dancing around the Christmas Tree

After the meal, the next tradition is to light candles (yes candles, not lights) on the Christmas tree and dance around, holding hands and singing Christmas songs, before moving onto presents. 

Dancing around the Christmas tree
Dancing around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. Photo: Bjarke Ørsted/Ritzau Scanpix


There are no chimney antics or middle-of-the-night creeping around in Denmark. Father Christmas himself (Julemanden, who may or may not be family member dressed up) comes to deliver presents (gaver) before or after dinner, depending on the level of excitement and patience of the children. 

Father Christmas, Julemand, handing out Christmas presents
A family member dressed up as Father Christmas (Julemanden) hands out Christmas presents on Christmas Eve in 1999. Photo: Linda Kastrup/Ritzau Scanpix

It is a long day of waiting for small children but gifts are also given in the run-up to Christmas. Some families give a sizeable present on the four Advent Sundays before Christmas. Others may get a small gift to unwrap each day in December leading up to Christmas. 

With food eaten and presents unwrapped, it will now be quite late and time to sleep it all off. The following day, December 25th, will involve more time with family and more food but the main excitement of Christmas is now over.

How do you say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Danish?

Jul means Christmas in Danish so to wish someone a Merry Christmas, you simply say god jul or glædelig jul.

READ MORE: My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories