Last Friday I went to my first Danish work Christmas party, or julefrokost. It was quite an event and a lot of fun, but it’s a very Danish tradition that might take you a bit by surprise if you’re not expecting some of its particular elements.
The big Danish Christmas tradition is to open presents on the evening of the 24th and then to spend all of the 25th and 26th traveling to the houses of family and friends and partaking of this grand feast called the julefrokost, or Christmas lunch. The Danes adapt this all day eating extravaganza into parties for friends and work colleagues throughout the month of December. You may have heard that Danes are reserved and difficult to get to know. While this can be true if you’re the kind of person who likes to party at the last minute, if you’re willing to plan ahead you’ll find that the Danes are actually quite into socializing, just in very specific and sanctioned ways like in a club or in these very planned and themed parties through work.
So as a non-Dane in the land of hygge and snaps, how do you survive such a very Danish socializing tradition as the julefrokost?
- Dress appropriately. Sure, it may take place at work and immediately after your working day, but the julefrokost is a special event and fancy dress is required. Most people will have brought a change of clothes (and the women will have brought high heels and extra makeup). Also, if there is a theme (like Scary Christmas, the theme at the one I attended last Friday) people will dress according to theme, so you may want to join in on the fun. Or maybe consider wearing an “elf hat” (essentially a Santa hat) because many of your coworkers and even your boss will probably wear one.
- Follow the invitation to the letter. If it says to bring a present no more than 30 kroner, do so. It’s for a game. If it says to bring your own drinks, do so, or you won’t have anything to drink at the party. And above all, arrive on time! The Danes are very punctual and will be a bit miffed if you arrive 30 minutes late.
- Speaking of which, spouses aren’t invited. This is a bit unusual to many people from other cultures, so it’s important to note. They didn’t mention asking your spouse to come because spouses are not invited to the Danish work parties. The party is about colleagues socializing and bonding not about meeting each others’ families. Don’t take this personally, it’s just the way it’s done. There will be other social functions that your spouse can attend. (Plus, they probably assumed that your spouse has a julefrokost of their own to attend since everyone works in Denmark. Plus, someone has to stay home and watch the kids while you’re out till 2 a.m. See number 5 below for more details on that.)
- Sit where you’re told. Your place at a table will have been decided for you, either by a game (which is what happened to me) or by a seating chart. It’s very likely that you’ll be sitting next to strangers or colleagues from a different department. This is on purpose. It’s so you can socialize and get to know each other. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet someone knew, and say hi to your other friends later after dinner is over and the rules about getting up from the table are a little more relaxed.
- Settle in and be patient. The Danish julefrokost is a multi hour event. Many of them go until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning! I left mine at 11:30pm, and I was in the first wave of people leaving. Just sit back and enjoy the experience. The Danes are very into the experience of dinner and entertaining.
- Do not leave before it’s appropriate. Unless you have a really good excuse, I get the feeling that it’s rude to leave too early. Stay at least through dessert and all the games. Which means, you should be prepared to stay until at least midnight. That’s when all the guests with kids – and Americans who are not used to staying up so late! – tend to leave.
- Be prepared to eat. Seriously. A lot. Maybe go on a fast earlier in the day because you will need all of the room in your tummy. The traditional julefrokost is many courses. The first is always fish, usually in a form that allows you to make the traditional Danish open face sandwiches (smørrebrød), including shrimp salad, tuna mousse, curried herring, pickled herring, some other kind of herring, or smoked salmon. This is followed by some meat courses, usually including traditional Danish meatballs (frikadeller), sausage, duck or goose, and of course roast pork with cracklings (flæskesteg). The sides are typically caramelized small potatoes (brune kartofler), warm red cabbage salad (rødkål), pickled vegetables, and more potatoes. Dessert is usually the traditional rice pudding with cherry sauce (risalamande med kirsebærsovs). Yum!
- Be prepared to drink. Each course is served with aquavit, the Danish snaps, in addition to the free flowing wine and beer that are typical of a Danish party. The Danes love a good excuse to drink, and I have found that they are actually quite convivial social drinkers. So I would encourage you to partake of this part of the tradition as much as you’re comfortable with. First, it will help you to participate fully in the experience. Second, it sure does make those hours fly by.
- Warm up your singing voice before hand. You will be singing Christmas carols. Probably many of them. We sang 4 or 5 at my party, and it was a lot of fun. The Danes love singing songs together, and do so every chance they get. Don’t worry about not knowing the words, though. They always pass around the lyrics. And there’s usually at least 5 verses, so you’ll get the tune down by the end of the song.
- Pakkeleg will be the funnest game you have ever played, and you’ll want to use it in all your future parties. I loved this part of the party. Pakkeleg means “package game.” Every guest is asked to bring a cheap gift to the party. Then at some point, dice are passed around to each table. The guests all take turns rolling the dice, and whenever you roll a 6 you get to take a present from the pile. When all the presents are taken, the real fun begins. For the next 5 minutes, every time you roll a 6 you get to steal any present in the room. When the 5 minutes are up, the game is over and you win all the presents in your possession. Imagine playing this with 30 drunk and rowdy party guests. It’s pandemonium.
So that is what to expect at a Danish julefrokost, especially one held at your work. It’s typically Danish and quite an experience. But I’ve become quite fond of many of the Danish Christmas traditions, and this is one of the best.