Scandinavian Christmas Traditions
Photographs: Visit Copenhagen
Text: Heather Storgaard
If there's one thing that Danes do really well, it's Christmas. With ample food, drink and hygge to light up the dark northern winter, Scandinavian Christmas traditions are also widely embraced by internationals. So, where do these traditions come from, and how far do they go back? How Danish is a Danish Christmas, and how much of it comes from international influence?
Julebuk (Christmas Goat)
In days gone by, the Christmas Goat was more than the straw ornament we see today. Sometimes said to signify Thor, the Norse God who had goats to pull his chariot, the julebuk in earlier ages was a man or men who dressed up as goats and terrorised the local countryside with pranks. Some say this still happens in the countryside, but I'm glad I've not witnessed it so far! I can only imagine how dreadful seeing a man-sized goat coming out of the winter darkness would have been. The straw julebuk ornament we know is not actually Danish but from neighbouring Sweden. After the Second World War, when neutral Sweden had a better economy than Denmark, where they were recovering from occupation, Danes would visit Sweden to do their Christmas shopping and bring straw Christmas Goats home with them!
Known as a Swedish tradition but now widely embraced throughout Northern Europe, St Lucia Day on 13th December, in many respects, kicks off Christmas in Scandinavia. The celebration involves a procession, with saffron buns, songs and girls chosen to represent St Lucia, dressed in white. So far, so simple? I was shocked last year to read that, similar to the Coca-Cola red Saint Nick, St Lucia as we know it today was dreamed up by a 1920s Swedish advertisement campaign! Although the saint is accurate, the Scandinavian tradition does not go nearly as far back as one would typically expect from a religious festival. But the more Christmas festivals, the merrier!
"Danish Christmas traditions have mixed together to make an exceptional, hyggelig season, helping the country grapple with winter darkness."
Gårdnisse to julenisse (Farm Elves to Christmas Elves)
Many of the Christmas traditions we have all over the world today originally stem from Germany. The first Christmas trees in Denmark were put up in homes by Germans living here, reportedly causing great bemusement and excitement among the local Danes back in the early 19th century, who then spread the tradition. After 1864, however, when Denmark was at war with Germany, all things of German origin dipped in popularity. Danification of the popular German Christmas was needed, and this is believed to be where the link between the gårdnisse of Scandinavian folk traditions and the modern julenisse we know and love came from.
Risalamande is the most famous Danish Christmas import among my British family. My mum raves about it and gets coached on pronunciation every time winter rolls around. Initially, risengrød, or rice pudding, was considered fancy enough as a Christmas treat, as rice was an expensive foreign import. Over time, however, the upper classes wanted to make their risengrød special, which is how risalamande was born. It is a truly delicious dessert with almonds, cherry sauce, and whipped cream. Trying to sound classy and French, the name was based on the French words riz à l'amande, rice with almonds. French Epiphany traditions were also imported for the new Danish dish, with the person to find the single whole almond in the risalamande getting a gift. I admit, I usually forget to buy the traditional marzipan pig gift and have to scramble to find something I want to re-gift lying around!
Whether found by looking back to folk stories, made up by someone in marketing, or imported from or inspired by foreign countries, Danish Christmas traditions have mixed together to make an exceptional, hyggelig season, helping the country grapple with winter darkness. Maybe a tradition from your home country will be glimpsed by a passing Dane, as Christmas trees were, and become a part of the future of Danish Christmas?