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Danish word of the day: Julemanden

Today’s word comes bearing Christmas cheer.

What is julemanden?

Ho, ho, ho!

Jul (similar to “yule”) means Christmas, and manden is the definitive article of mand, “man”.

In Danish, there’s no need to worry about whether to call him Santa, Father Christmas or St. Nicholas: the man who flies his sleigh across the world to deliver gifts and joy in the festive season is simply “the Christmas man”.

Why do I need to know julemanden?

It’s actually an assumption to consider julemanden as one and the same mythical figure as Santa.

Some of the Danish Santa storytelling does in fact differ from what you might have heard in Anglophone countries: he lives at the North Pole (not Lapland) and delivers presents around dinner time on Christmas Eve, rendering the “coming down the chimney” part of his magic somewhat obsolete in Denmark.

Meanwhile, elves – nisser in Danish – are generally more prominent in children’s Christmas tales in Denmark.

In the end, there’s no escaping the fact that julemanden is Santa: the Catholic Saint Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, merchants and children.

As the many histories of Santa will tell you, Saint Nicholas’ name day is December 6th, and the Dutch Christmas tradition of “Sinter Klaas”, a cap-wearing man who came down the chimney with gifts for the children on that date, evolved into the modern Santa Claus popularised in the United States and transported back to Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The name “Father Christmas”, popular in the United Kingdom but not used in the US, has its roots in much older midwinter traditions which can be traced to pagan folklore in England, but the figure eventually became one and the same as Santa.

In German, Santa is called Weihnachtsmann, and Swedish and Norwegian also have their own versions that are similar but not identical to Danish: Jultomten and Julenissen.

Given the various names and origins, the all-encompassing julemanden seems an apt title for the magical and jolly fellow who appears on Christmas Eve, jingle bells, red-nosed reindeer and all.

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Danish word of the day: Idræt

A sporty word that doesn’t quite mean “sport”, but does tell us something about shared Scandinavian identity.

Danish word of the day: Idræt

What is idræt?

Idræt means “sports” even though the word sport exists in Danish. 

In modern Danish, you’ll most likely hear it as the name of a school subject (the equivalent of P.E.), but idræt has been around since the nineteenth century and comes from the Icelandic íþrótt, which also means “sport”. 

The Icelandic íþrótt originated in the Old Norse íþrótt (“art, craft, skill, sport”) which is itself a compound of  (“work, diligence, id”) and þrótr (“bravery, strength, powers”).

So why not just sport? Well, simply put, sport is not Scandinavian in origin. The English word “sport” comes from the Old French desportdeport which meant “game, amusement” – think of the games in Olympic Games. 

Íþrótt was instead borrowed from Icelandic as a more Nordic alternative to the English-French sport during the heyday of a movement called Nordism, which stemmed from Scandinavism, also known as Scandinavianism or pan-Scandinavianism. 

Why do I need to know idræt?

So what was Scandinavism? In short, it is the idea that the Scandinavian countries should be closer, perhaps even one country. The movement was primarily literary, linguistic and cultural, promoting a shared Scandinavian cultural heritage.

Scandinavism was started by Danish and Swedish university students in the 1840s, in the southern Swedish region of Skåne, and paralleled the unifications happening in Italy and Germany during the same period. It lost its momentum after Denmark lost the Second Schleswig-Holstein War in 1864 and the King of Sweden and Norway declined to help the Danes in the conflict.

The movement also promoted the close relation of the Scandinavian languages, although not necessarily a new common “Scandinavian” language.

It should be noted here that Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are considered mutually intelligible, although any Swede spending a weekend trying to talk to Danes in Copenhagen may disagree with that assessment.

Nevertheless, some linguists go as far as to say the three are a language continuum, or in other words, dialects of the same language: the North Germanic Dialect Continuum.

Icelandic and Faroese are different enough to be regarded as separate languages, but they should perhaps also be included as belonging in terms of culture.