09 December 2010

(Not) Christmas traditions, part two

Halfway through writing this post I realised that I have been going about it all wrong. I got lost in the translation. You see, we adopted this translation "Christmas", and so it is no mystery that we continue to puzzle people when we go on about elves and calendars. What we have here is not Christmas, we have "jul". I should have recognized that earlier, because it is so obvious, there is only a very little religion in jul, and that is one of the things that makes it so inviting. You can jump right in, and have your jul, no matter where you are from. I know that some people go to church on jule day and -night, but nobody I ever knew, so I can't tell you what other religious rituals there may be.

But I can see clearly now that everything "Christmas" should be "jul", and then I bet it will all make more sense to you. And especially so when you hear about the next rituals, haha:

The jule lunch
In December Copenhagen are having its share of drunk people. You know, the kind who started drinking at three o clock in the afternoon, and maybe don't get out much... and since this is their one chance to kick it up, it comes in handy that they loose their inhibitions some time around the dessert.

Every workplace, university and club has a jule lunch. Officially the jule lunch is about eating the traditional jule dishes, as many of them as you can squeeze in, but when it comes down to it, people get together to get drunk. And cheat on their spouses (no, not all of them, but more than you would like to think). Along with just after the summer holidays, January is the month where most couples seek counseling or break up.

Glögg (gløgg)
One of the all important jule stables is glögg. Everybody has their own version, but in essence it is about mixing and heating alcohol (like dark rhum, cognac and schnapps), spices, red wine, almonds and raisins. For the dedicated brewers, preparations starts as early as in spring, when the raisins are soaked in alcohol and a mix of secret ingredients like cinnamon, cloves and orange peels. Some bars are famous for their particular version, like that at one of Copenhagens oldest bars Hviids Vinstue (approaching a 300th anniversary) on the corner of Kings New Square, serving glögg from the same recipe since 1954.

But you can also buy an easy glögg mix in the supermarket, and add your own alcohol. So long as the red wine is hot, and people are happy, it is maybe not so important how long the raisins soaked, if you know what I mean...

The marzipan pig prize
The traditional jule evening dessert is Ris a la mande, named so in French, but it really is an all Danish invention. It is made from cooled rice porridge, whipped cream, chopped almonds and vanilla sugar, and is served with a side of either hot or cold cherry sauce. When chopping the almonds, you save one and mix it in, so the dessert becomes a lottery. The one who gets the almond, wins the almond prize and traditionally that is a marzipan pig.

For many years my grandmother snug in two almonds when she served the dessert at the table, sliding one into each of mine and my sisters servings, so sweet. But as we grew older, the men in the family objected, and all bets were off. I bet you can imagine how my uncle and grandfather had their fun pretending to get the almond every other second, making big eyes and stopping chewing. For some reason it was really important to win the marzipan pig.

I never thought of why we had the marzipan pig prize before, but the people of La Glace posted the story in the window next to the sweet pigs, so here is the translation:

The marzipanjulepig story:
In ancient Rome at the darkest time of the year, Saturnalia was celebrated. This is what we call jul today. It was a time to make fun of the religious customs and during the celebrations the masters and the servants traded places for a day. At Saturnalia the poor played for nuts and the rich played for money. The customs made it to the North, the nuts became beans and later peas. He who had the most peas would be named the king of fools, and would have his wishes come true. Later the peas became a single almond. He who had the almond could make a wish or get at present.

At the same time the pig became a symbol of fertility in this dark juletime. The fatter and whiter the pig, the more fruitful the year to come. The pig became a symbol of jul. He who got the almond would get at marzipan pig.

(it all makes sense to me now, how jul originated not as a religious, but as a fun time)

It is strange, but the more I talk about this, the more I am starting to like jul. Especially so for not being a religious and secluded event, but rather being about playing, eating and being cosy. My perfect jul would be with friends from all over the world, each bringing a tradition to the table. We would eat all kinds of food, and sing strange songs and hide presents. Jul could be a very tolerable holiday. Even for me.

******** A small update ********

This is classic Sandra: after I looked at my post one more time, I realised that it could be perceived as if I am against religious holidays. That is of course not the case. It is just that anything having to do with religion scares me. I always think of it as a minefield, and my next step may cost me a limb. Even when I try to avoid it, I can't.

So if you read this post and feel hurt, please don't. I wish you a happy what ever holiday is yours.


  1. I think I could get into a tradition of a winter trip to Copenhagen to get some snow in, celebrate jul with a bunch of people, have some fun :) Probably wouldn't have too much trouble convincing my wife it's a good idea either :) Only issue now is paying for that plane ticket...

  2. That would be crazy cosy! One day when I get a big house, none of my friends will ever have to think about hotels in Copenhagen. And then we will make the gettogether jul, I have a feeling it will be fantastic.

  3. Sandra - Happy Christmashanakwanzajul to you! Keep the great jul posts coming!

  4. Haha, kdt, thank you very much. And the same one to you, I will have to see if I dare another post on the subject.. :-)

  5. Hey Sandra, what you describe is some mix of different things that we celebrate in France - we have a cake in France for the "Kings" in January, in which we have a small object hidden (used to be a fava bean i think). The youngest at the table goes under the table and tells what piece of the cake goes to whom. Then the one who has the small object wins (he is King or she is Queen), and earns the crown. Never heard of Ris a la mande (the French spelling would be Riz à l'amande).

  6. Hi Carole, that sounds like the cosiest cake game I have ever heard of! I would not mind celebrating that here, we don't see a lot of action or celebrations in January. My kingdom for a bowl of Ris a la mande right now, with cold cherry sauce, mmm.

    By the way, just so you don't think we think we speak French, this is the way we pronounce Ris a la mande: rissallamang. Haha.

  7. I got a marzipan pig from a friend for Christmas :) She got it at a German market that is in town here. I think I'm going to eat it right now, actually. For good luck!

  8. Ah, Dave, congratulations, haha, that was so sweet of her. I actually won the marzipan pig this year, for the first time since childhood, and it was homemade, so sweet. I will of course never be able to eat it, although I could use a dose of good luck right about now. :-)


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