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From "potato holidays" to Halloween

Danish pupils and students have a one-week autumn break every year. It will be from 14th till 22nd October this year. Danes are always excited for this hygge family time - but it wasn't always like that.

Photographs: Pexels

Text: Natália Šepitková

In the middle of October, when nature changes colour from green to yellow, red and brown, and mornings are foggy and evenings cold, Danish children have a small break from school. Some of them travel with their parents to exotic destinations to extend the summer, and others spend a few days in cabin houses (in Danish sommerhus) in Denmark. Still, usually, the majority have family time in nature or at home with a hygge atmosphere. Many cultural institutions, zoos or amusement parks organise special events this week. Copenhagen has, for example, an annual event, Kulturnatten, this year on the 13th of October, when many museums, galleries and cultural centres are open till midnight with an exciting programme offer. Most elementary schools in the country organise Motionsdag – a day of exercise and sports games the day before the beginning of the autumn holidays. So there are many things to do to avoid kids' and teenagers' boredom. The autumn break is a week of having fun and enjoying the freedom of having no homework for the coming days.

What do potatoes have to do with it?

Many years ago, in September and October, which were (and still are) months of harvesting, children living in the countryside were allowed time off from school to help their parents work in fields and gardens. The problem was that each farmer had a different time for harvesting, so it was difficult for schools to maintain the learning process and have children away at another time. The solution came in 1899 when it was decided that the official potato school holiday was placed over all Denmark in mid-October, in week 42. Since then, every year during this period, children were taken out of school for a week to work with their parents, usually harvesting potatoes. By the way, it wasn't only Danish ting. I remember when my parents mentioned that they also had "a potato break" from school in autumn, circa 50 years ago in Slovakia. Nevertheless, they lived in the city. It was voluntary work for pupils and students, organised by the school, and despite the work, it was pretty enjoyable.

"Today, most varieties of potatoes are harvested during the summer, so instead of "the potato holiday", Danish children have efterårsferien."

Modern customs

Today, most varieties of potatoes are harvested during the summer, so instead of "the potato holiday", Danish children have efterårsferien. At most, they go with their parents to pick apples in the orchards or help in small gardens around their houses. Tradition has remained only in some activities during the autumn break, which are thematically focused on potatoes. Many municipalities also organise their own potato fests – Kartoffelfestival. If you want to learn how potatoes made their way from South America to Denmark – first as pig feed and later as a large part of the Danish daily diet – you should visit the Danmarks Kartoffel Museum.

And then Halloween arrived…

Modern autumn holidays are often associated with the upcoming festivals at the end of October. Therefore, it is common for many event centres and amusement parks to be decorated with pumpkins during this period. The American tradition came to Denmark many years ago and became associated with All Saintʼs Day. At that time (end of October and beginning of November), Danes also remember their deceased relatives by lighting candles on their graves. But back to Danish Halloween. It is celebrated in the same way as everywhere else in the world. Children wear spooky costumes, visit houses in the neighbourhood, and ask for sweets. People organise horror parties and not-to-be-missed spooky decorations with candles and carved pumpkins. But they wouldn't be Danes if they didn't adapt it a little. Don't be surprised when many homes will have carved turnips or rutabagas as jack-o'-lanterns in addition to pumpkins.

Tips for activities during the autumn holiday;

  1. Collecting chestnuts and making animals from them is the best activity for small kids.

  2. Playing board games with the whole family – even teenagers will be entertained.

  3. A nice trip around the country to discover new places – can be a good choice for the whole family.

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