05 December 2010

Christmas traditions, part one

In a way I feel like an outsider on this subject. I am familiar with all the customs, but with a few edible exceptions I don't take part in any of them. But that don't mean that you should be cheated, so I have picked a few that stands out.

(this one is just to get you in the mood)


The countdown merchandise:

1. The Christmas calendars. Yes, plural, because one is not enough. My first encounter with the Christmas calendar was the one you (that would be my grandmother) bought in the bank or at the post office. It corresponded with the televised calendar show, so you had a real three dimensional experience opening the calendar, getting a hint of what was to come in the evening show. I can't tell you how it is now, but back then it was quality stuff, well produced and commercial free, genuine "hygge".

For the spoiled ones there are the supplementary chocolate calendars, and/or the package calendar, with 24 small wrapped gifts, one for every day until Christmas. My grandparents had their own tradition with a santa boot near the headboard of the bed (resembling the American way, maybe?), where you would wake up in the morning and find a small present left there overnight (and now I miss my grandparents, great).

But calendars are not just for children, here. The Danish Game Business have come up with a lottery calendar, where you scrape a square a day. Every year they have been running the same TV commercial unaltered, so it has now become a Christmas stable. They should have left it at that, but instead they went ahead and took a huge bite out of the pedestrian street, eating a whole house:

Down boy!

And then there is the latest addition: the street art calendars. I know of two, one in a fixed location (the Helveticat tunnel calendar, I got there too early to catch it yesterday), and one by Streetheart that is more of a treasure hunt, with a daily prize for the lucky winner.

The Streetheart Christmas calendar, day 4

Found it!

2. The calendar light. A candle with 24 markings, you burn a little every day until Christmas. I considered buying one just to show you, but you get the picture without one, don't you?

The stamps:

Even if you don't subscribe to the Christmas card tradition (hello!), you can still flavor it with the annual and collectible Christmas stamps, designed by a new artist every year. The stamps are purely for decorative purposes, so you need to double stamp, but the proceeds go to the Christmas-stamp-homes, for underprivileged children. As a business it says a lot about you if you choose not to double stamp with this one. This year the post launched the sticker stamps (lick no more), and the option to buy two different sizes. Here is one:

By artist Sussi Bech.

And perhaps to make up for the repeated and indecent mark up in postage the Danish Post have come up with a small and irresistible series of stamps. The story behind it is that the girl is lonely, so she builds herself a snowman (excuse me while my heart swells):

By artists Maria Bramsen and Camilla Hübbe

The trimmings:

1. The elf village. If there is one thing I would like to pass on to a child, it is the elf village. But none of that new crap they push all over the place, thank you very much. I would go the the flea market and scout for the old pipe cleaner elves. They should be arranged on a small hilly landscape made from cotton (like the supermarket cotton balls, only in sheets, what's the word?), doing elfy things like eating rice pudding and sledding. Crazy cosy (=hygge).

Pipe cleaner elf, the original

2. Making your own. This is cosy too. Getting together and cutting and braiding hearts and stars and cones, to decorate the house and the tree. There is likely to be hot booze (for the grown ups of course), and Christmas edibles, like the "pepper nuts", having nothing to do with pepper. Or "Æbleskiver" (apple slices), having nothing to do with slices or apples. Confused yet?

Micro Christmas

Home made micro trimmings, I want to kiss them... very gently.

As you can tell, most if not all of this really only works if there are children involved. I could go on, but I fear I will talk myself into a Christmas mood, and I really don't need that... "Christmas traditions, part two" will include the marzipan pig prize and hot booze, I promise.


  1. The amazing thing about Danish Christmas is that it is completely secular - no religious content at all. Now, I'm as atheist as the next person, but even I find it strange that all Danish Christmas symbolism is about elves, nisser, Disney Characters but never any hint of what it is all based on.

    Although apparently the over-financed churches, empty for 51 weeks of the year, are packed on the 24th.

    Go'Jul, Sandra. Loving the calendar.


  2. Hi Neil, it's true, Christmas here has little to do with religion, I think it may be rooted in the solstice festivities (remember reading that somewhere), as the daylight hours starts getting longer from the 21st of December.

    In any case it is my personal experience that the less religion in the picture, the easier it is for people to get along. That can be said about politics too, but I can't keep that stuff in, haha. I am really happy that you like the calendar!

    And go' jul to you too!

  3. At least your Christmas stamps are interesting, ours are usually either ugly, or just reproductions of an icon (as in elaborate painting of Mary or Christ) or something like that, which is fine, but not that interesting.

    For some reason it just hit me this year that the english "yule tide" comes directly from the Scandinavian jul tid (or tijd in Dutch). And of course Santa Claus comes directly from Dutch Sinterklaas, though we didn't inherit the tradition of Zwaarte Piet (that would be racist!) :)

    I think in general, the Christmas celebration happens when it does because that was already a time of celebration, so the Christian church just kind of got in on the whole thing by making it religious - whether you believe in Christ or not, he probably wasn't actually born on December 25th.

    I agree that getting together with friends to drink hot booze and make ornaments is one of the best Christmastime activities. One of our favorite hot booze recipes is from a Swedish cook - Tina Nordström - and it's hot spiced apple cider with vanilla-infused vodka. It goes wonderfully with her mustard-glazed ham and browned cabbage recipe too (I'm drooling right now) :) Which is one of the other best things to do around this time of year - cook extravagantly and share it with people :)

    Instead of elf villages, we often have nativity scenes (you know, the shepherds and Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus and all the animals), though we certainly have our santas and elves and reindeer (also a Scandinavian leftover - not too many reindeer in the U.S.).

    I love peppernuts in all their variations (pfeffernussen, pepernoten, etc) and aebleskiver! We meant to get a poffertje (basically the same thing as aebleskiver) pan while in Amsterdam in September, but kind of forgot.

    So yeah, I would say other than getting a tree and decorating it, our (my wife and I) Christmas traditions mostly revolve around making and eating a lot of food :)

    Now I'm really hungry. At least I have leftover beef stew to eat for lunch in an hour :)

    Thanks for the Christmas Calendar posts, this will be fun (and glad you're finding something new about yourself along the way). Cheers!

  4. Hi Dave, the Dutch have a very different rhythm to celebrating this month than we do. And I love the poffertjes too, and I too forget buying that special pan and bringing it with me home, when I visit. Mmm, yummy little things with powder sugar and butter.

    Our hot booze is gløgg, you may have heard about it? Otherwise you will soon. I'm not a fan of red wine (or the stains they leave at your teeth, haha), but for some reason I love it warm, in sauces and as gløgg.

    Christmas in Denmark is pretty devoid of religion, although some crazy minister of some "free church" in a small town in Denmark made it to the news yesterday, hanging an elf (yes, hanging by the neck, in a noose like an execution, freak!) in the street, claiming elves are devils. In Denmark? Unbelievable. He even preaches this madness to his 3 small children, who are now afraid of elves. I am pleased that a local villager took matters into his own hands last night and abducted the elf, haha.

    Crazy is alive and well in Denmark too.

  5. Is gløgg like glühwein? Just red wine, simmered with some spices in it? I really like that as well. Hot buttered rum is also quite nice, but very very sweet.

    It's amazing what some people find threatening, isn't it? Those elves are going to corrupt your children, and the world will end! (well, it will anyway eventually, but the elves will certainly help!) :)

    In the U.S., there really aren't many Christmas traditions left except for the actual day of Christmas, and Christmas trees. Anything more specific than that is usually just a family tradition or a personal tradition it seems, but nothing much more is common to the whole country (oh, right, except shopping) :) To be honest, my general impression of the overall mood in December in the U.S. is one of frenzied panic trying to decide what to buy or make for everyone you know, and get it all done before Christmas.

    In Lithuania, for Christmas Eve, you prepare a meatless feast, but with several types of fish, and all the other usual things. They also have a lot of pagan traditions still kind of mingled in with the Christian things, so there are effigy burnings and other things at different times of year (in spring, you take potato pancakes around to your friends, *and* they burn an effigy of winter), which I think is pretty wonderful.

    In any case, it's nice to hear about how different people celebrate the same occasions, and just about what kinds of things get celebrated around the world :)

  6. Hi Dave, you really are extremely well informed on a lot of things. It is nice to learn about other customs, I agree, and a meatless fest sounds very modern, actually.

    The Christmas panic is still around in our part of the world, but since I have not taken part in it for many years, I don't notice it anymore. With the exception of the last week before Christmas, where the stores start running out of the best stuff, and staples, and people start fraying around the edges..

    I expect the financial crisis, that has hit us really hard, compared to other European countries, will take the top off that, though.


  7. Well, we lived in Lithuania for a year, which is why I know some of their traditions and such. I've also had a good friend here in Portland who was Dutch, and I'm a total language nerd, so I love studying other languages - and in studying language, you come across a lot of cultural things as well :)

    I would love to continue getting more and more out of the Christmas panic - we keep reducing what we do, and at this point we're at least making almost all of our presents, rather than just buying a lot of stuff. Really now we're only giving presents to immediate family a very few friends. I would much rather have people over and make dinner and drink and watch films or play games than just give presents (plus, it just fits in with our normal life better).

    I haven't been looking at the information on how sales have been in the U.S. this year (that is, if people are buying less). I think because I haven't been impacted by the financial crisis personally, I kind of feel like the worst hysteria and fear about not having money have passed, but maybe it's still hanging around and I'm just not noticing.

    Now all the news is about Wikileaks :)

  8. why do i get nostalgic of France looking at and reading your post ? I'm going though tough times these days and I'm thinking of going back to France, but I never had a Xmas calendar in France... Ahhhrrrggg. (at least I'm broke enough and worried enough so I don't think I'll be buying a lot of presents this year...)

  9. Dave, your idea of a good Christmas evening sounds really good to me, friends, good food and entertainment, and zero fuss. Some families make arrangements about presents here, I know, that only the kids get presents, or that all presents must stay below a set (low) price limit.

    I am happy to hear that you are not affected by the ugly crisis, I wish this was true of more people. Maybe it will bring out the creative side in more people.. I really like the idea of making your own gifts. :-)

  10. Hi Carole, I think you are catching the European vibe from me. It saddens me to hear that you are having a tough time, maybe you are not quite settled in your new city yet? For me the holidays is like a candy store I am not allowed into, and December is painful, always. I really hope you get to feel better about it over there. Or make the change you have to, to feel happy again. Here is a hug for you ( ).

  11. Thanks Sandra. And I love gløgg/glühwein... When I was a kid, and old enough not to believe in Santa Claus, we would all go to my grandparents cabin in the Pyrenees mountains, and celebrate he holidays there. For Xmas, everybody would put the name of the present's recipient on each package and hide it in the cabin. Then, we would have a huge dinner, all night, and between courses go present hunting. Of course it was funny to find presents forgotten from the previous year. And for new years eve, we would light fireworks in the snow. I have fond memories of that period, even though my family is as horrible as all families.

  12. Oh, that sounds so fantastic, with the all night food, and the in between search of presents, I can almost feel the heat of the fireplace, how crazy cosy! I wouldn't mind that kind of Christmas either. Maybe mix it up a little with a foreign traditon every year, sort of like the "best of". I would bring the elf village, haha.

  13. I'll bring the herring, and also an effigy that we can all collaboratively decide on what it should represent, and then burn it! :)

  14. See what you all did here? You just defined "hygge". :-)

  15. The more I read your blog, the more I miss living in Denmark :(
    (you should obviously take this sad face as a compliment)

    At home we've never had a Christmas tree, but now I want to craft some entangled hearts and drink glögg.

  16. Oh, now I want to pack a Danish jule package for you, to give you a taste. Maybe I should make one and put it up in a small lottery of a kind? That would be cosy. An instant Danish jul package, haha.

    The second post in this series is almost ready, I just need a picture of a glass of glögg, very frustrating!

  17. Just think of failed photos of glogg as opportunities to drink some more of it :)

  18. But it kills me to post something without pictures, I don't even think that I can, haha. I'm just itchin' to bring the next one. It will be there tomorrow, picutures or not! :-)

  19. Hi Sandra! The lottery sounds like a great idea :)

    I realise that maybe you got the impression that we do not celebrate Christmas. Here in Catalonia, as in some other countries, apart from Christmas trees, our traditional decoration is a model of the city of Bethlehem showing Jesus' birth. An ultra-christian version of the elves village, I guess.

    I am not religious at all, but I still get nostalgic thinking about it. Every year around these dates we would buy a new figure or building for the village such as a shepherd, a windmill, a woman washing clothes, etc. and then go to the forest near my parents' house to collect some moss. We used it as grass, some sand to make paths, tin foil for the river, flour as snow...

    One singularity from the "nativity scenes" in my region is the caganer, which is a figurine of a man pooping. It is usually placed behind a haystack or another hidden spot so it becomes a kind of game for children to find it.

    And this brings to my mind this year's Christmas decoration in one of the well-known shopping malls in Barcelona. My apologies if you find it gross or disgusting:
    (sadly, he's wearing a Santa's hat instead of the typical one)

    Sorry for the interruption, let's go back to the lovely hearts :)

  20. Hahaha, Xuriguera, there is no better way to start the day than with a good laugh, and you really provided that. I am still laughing... your version of the elf village sounds like the coolest thing, but of course it is the idea of the hidden pooping man that cracks me up, hahaha. Fantastic!

    Not that I doubted that you celebrate Christmas, I just thought you might enjoy a tiny dose of jul to go with it. Now I really want to go and see a village like that, it sounds fantastic, with all the home made effects.

    Today I'm going to bring you the second part :-)


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