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Danish Christmas traditions

Aarhus and Eastern Jutland is home to many internationally-minded companies and organisations that all contribute to the internationalisation of this area. This month Tiny Maerschalk, writer and head of International Community, shares her Christmas in Denmark experiences.

Photographs: Unsplash

Text: International Community

There is no doubt about it - the holiday season has hit Denmark full force. Outside it’s dark, dreary and cold, but bright lights light up the streets and houses both inside and out. It is the time of year to go all-in with Christmas hygge. This means devouring enormous amounts of sweets, biscuits and the all-time favourite gløgg and æbleskiver.

After living in Denmark for 20 years, I admit that the Danish Christmas traditions are growing on me. Even though I still struggle with the nisser or pixies. Personally, I prefer angels. The months leading up to Christmas are dark and cold in Denmark, and each opportunity to fend off the gloom is more than welcome. I guess that is why Danes go totally bananas with candles, baking and decorations.

Religion or culture?

Christmas is a strong part of the religious heritage in many countries, and the Christmas traditions reflect that. In Denmark, however, it can be hard to find any religious focus. So I turned to Marie Vejrup Nielsen, Associate Professor and Deputy Head of School of Culture and Society at the Department of the Study of Religion at Aarhus University. Marie Vejrup Nielsen explains: “In Denmark, many Christian traditions are seen as “just culture” and are celebrated as Danish more than Christian.

Most Danes see their own practices as something to do with family traditions and national traditions. At the same, for a scholar of religion, this is a form of religion. One that is not about personal beliefs, but about standard practices.” She continues: “The change from a religious to a cultural event has happened over a long period of time. As she continues: “In a way, religion is about common practices, but of course, there has been a change over the centuries from a stronger traditional religious focus to a broader cultural focus today. This can, for example, be seen in how many Muslims in Denmark celebrate a form of Christmas, as part of the Danish-Muslim culture.”

It took me years to realise that Christmas in Denmark is not a religious celebration but part of Danish culture. So one can wonder why churches are filled to the brim on Christmas Eve, this being a solid contrast to the rest of the year where finding a seat in a Danish church is not an issue at all. “It is interesting that the one day where many Danes see it as cosy and meaningful to go to church is Christmas Eve (in the daytime). The current service is actually not that old but was institutionalised in the 1990s. So, of course, there have been services before, but the Christmas service many think about today is not a very old tradition. But the Christmas service is a good example of the relationship between the majority Church and the members and citizens of Denmark - it is a mix of traditions, practices and of course for some also personal beliefs.” Marie Vejrup Nielsen explains.

“It took me years to realise that Christmas in Denmark is not a religious celebration but part of Danish culture.” - Tiny Maerschalk

Adopt, merge or disregard?

At work, you will be submerged in Danish Christmas traditions with decorations, your colleagues bringing home-baked goods, the canteen serving Danish Christmas food, the annual Christmas party or julefrokost, maybe even being your colleague’s secret nisser who is expected to engage in shenanigans.

As an international, it can be challenging to find the balance between your own and Danish traditions. Do you adhere to your own traditions, adopt all the Danish traditions, or find a middle ground and mix your own with the local traditions? Especially in Denmark, where Christmas traditions are strong and dominate for several months, it can be challenging to find the balance, so your own traditions also get attention.

Are you interested in finding out more about Danish Christmas traditions? Then follow International Community’s Facebook page, where we celebrate one tradition per day during December.

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