Our First Christmas in Denmark

Well, we just successfully completed our first Christmas here in Denmark. Luckily, Brian’s mom was able to come over on Christmas Eve and provide some much needed family-ness to make the holiday feel more like a holiday. She stayed until January 7th, and we took her around Aarhus then to Lund, Sweden and then to Copenhagen. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much good food in my life! We all here have to go on diets and start running just to undo all the damage ūüôā

Below are some photos of our Christmas and our travels. I explain more about each photo and where we were in the captions. Click through to see the descriptions and the photo in full.


I’m Back!

I’m back snitches!

Sorry for the lack of posts the last couple weeks. Though it’s not really a good excuse for a blogger (because apparently blogging is unlike other jobs and you keep doing it NO MATTER WHAT!), but it was the holidays and my mother-in-law was in town so I kind of unplugged from everything. I’ve never had so many emails to catch up on!

We had a wonderful Christmas and New Years here in Denmark. I may do a post with a few pictures soon. But now it’s back to real life and all that that entails. Coming back from a trip or the holidays when you’re a new expat is a little weird. On the one hand, it’s nice to be back to your usual routine and surroundings that are more familiar than where you’ve been, even if only slightly. On the other hand, it’s like your subconscious recognizes this “coming back” process and expects to be coming back to the very familiar, a.k.a. your home town. Coming back to your new home can be a little jarring at first. But overall, it’s nice and surprising to realize that our little apartment is starting to actually feel like home and that we can relax here in Aarhus because it is indeed beginning to be familiar.

{And to those of you in Copenhagen who told us Aarhus is boring, boo to you! I much prefer our reasonably sized and not ridiculously busy city to the hustle and bustle of Copenhagen. But then I’ve never been a big city girl.}

How to Survive the Danish Work Christmas Party


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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 (sm√łrrebr√łd),¬†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 (fl√¶skesteg).¬†The sides are typically caramelized small potatoes (brune kartofler), warm red cabbage salad (r√łdk√•l), pickled vegetables, and more potatoes. Dessert is usually the traditional rice pudding with cherry sauce (risalamande med kirseb√¶rsovs). Yum!
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

More Danish Christmas Hygge. This Time: Gnomes

This is one Danish Christmas tradition that I am fully on board with, and I’m so excited to share it with you.

The Danes love gnomes, or as they call them¬†nisser. The traditional gnome looks just like you would expect (kind of like a garden gnome), with a pointy red hat and a big bushy beard. But if you Google “nisse” you get all kinds of different types, some young some old. Here are some typical versions of¬†nisser:

Christmas gnomes drawn by artist Alfred Jacobsen in 1898. Click through for source.

Christmas gnomes drawn by artist Alfred Jacobsen in 1898. Click through for source.

Beardless nisser. Click through for source.

Beardless nisser. Click through for source.

(Frankly, they remind me of The World of David the Gnome, this TV show I used to love love love as a kid, which interestingly enough was originally a Spanish animated show based on a book by a Dutch author. I was such a multicultural child.)

Hola mis amigos!

Hola mis amigos!

So, the origins of the Danish nisse.

The gnome figure really comes from Scandinavian mythology in general, and Sweden, Norway, and Finland each have their own version of him.

Before Denmak had a Santa Claus figure, they had what was called either¬†nisserfar, nisserkongen,¬†or¬†julenisse:¬†the Gnome Father,¬†the Gnome King, or the Christmas Gnome. During Christmas, each family had to pay special attention to their household julenisse. They must especially leave him some¬†risengr√łd¬†– or sweet rice porridge – on Christmas Eve. If they did, then he would be sweet in the coming year, bringing good fortune and even helping out with chores. If they failed to do so,¬†the gnome would be very upset and play tricks on the family the whole of the next year.¬†

This figure got updated after WWII, when American culture started to have more influence on Danish culture, to a version of the American Santa Claus called julemanden¬†and the nisser sort of got converted into elves. Now, they help Santa build and deliver his gifts. However,¬†julemanden¬†still retains some features of the¬†julenisse. For example,¬†he still wears a red¬†nissehat and¬†he carries a big wooden spoon for all the¬†risengr√łd¬†he’ll be eating.

However, the original tradition of the household julenisse has continued, and it is a big deal during December in Denmark.

First of all, if you have kids then you definitely have a¬†julenisse. One of Brian’s coworkers told us about how her kids’ school used to have a tradition. In December, the classroom¬†julenisse would go home with a different child every night along with a diary. During the night, the¬†nisse would play all kinds of tricks on the child, and the parents would have to record in the diary what the¬†nisse¬†was up to at each house. (Of course, this meant that if you were the 10th parent, you’d have to read everything that the other parents had been doing and come up with new and even more creative ways that the¬†nisse¬†could misbehave on your night!) When the¬†nisse visited her house, for example, he put rice in her daughter’s bed and hid all her school books in the oven. Oh¬†nisse, you’re so mischievous.

Second, gnome figurines are everywhere. Literally, everywhere. In every store that sells anything related to Christmas, you will find a version of a gnome that you can buy. It’s one of the big Danish Christmas themes for decorations, just like holly berries or Christmas trees or reindeer are in the US.

So I have totally jumped on board the nisser train. We already have quite a few nisser in our house.

Aren't they sweet? The little ones are tucked all over the house!

Aren’t they sweet? The little ones are tucked all over the house!

And I am making sure that they get some¬†risengr√łd¬†on the 24th so that we have good luck next year! (Plus, I’d like to eat some myself. Have you seen it? It looks delicious!)

mmmm omg I can't wait to eat some

mmmm omg I can’t wait to eat some

Christmas has Come to Denmark!

This past weekend was the official beginning of Christmas in Aarhus. Santa (or as they call him here, Julemanden, literally “the Christmas man”) came down from his home in Greenland to visit Aarhus on Friday evening. He arrived on a boat in the harbor and lead a parade – in a snow white Cadillac no less – through the city to Stroget, the pedestrian street. There, he stopped to light the Christmas lights hanging above the shops.

Christmas Lights

He then continued along the parade route, ending up in the square in front of the city hall. There, the mayor and Santa lit the giant Christmas tree while all the children cheered and everyone around us sang Danish Christmas carols.

Santa in his cadillac, the tree all lit up, and the gazillions of people who came out to greet Santa.

Santa in his cadillac, the tree all lit up, and the gazillions of people who came out to greet Santa.

{Singing is really big here in Denmark. Danes have a song for every special occasion. We went to a Halloween dinner party once for Brian’s work, and everyone was handed lyrics for a Halloween themed song that we then all sang together later in the night. On Christmas Eve, the tradition is to light the candles on the tree and then join hands around it while singing Christmas carols. So it was no surprise to me that everyone burst into the same song after the tree was lit on Friday.}

So now that December has started, Christmas is in full swing in Denmark, and they go crazy for Christmas here. I think it has to do with all the dark. Christmas gives you a really really good excuse for extra hygge. So far, it’s one of my favorite things about Denmark. I am a Christmas nut, so it’s super exciting for me.

The Danes have some very specific Christmas traditions, many of which we are adopting to give some more holiday cheer to our first Christmas away from our families. Saturday night, we went to one of Brian’s coworker’s homes for a Danish Christmas dinner, and they taught us how to make some of the traditional Danish Christmas decorations. {Have I talked yet about how Danes seem to make everything by hand? Home repairs, dinner parties, holiday decorations. Whatever it is, the Danes like to do it themselves.}

The first big one is the advent wreath.  Traditionally, you make one yourself with pine boughs, pine cones, moss, anything Christmasy. Then you insert four candles, one for each of the advents, or the four Sundays before Christmas. We came home and quickly put a wreath together using a store bought wreath (shame on us!) and some candles we had in the house. Then we promptly lit it because yesterday was the first Sunday in December.

Our advent wreath with the first candle lit.

Our advent wreath with the first candle lit.

They also have these calendar candles that you light every night in December leading up to Christmas. We’ve had this one for a month, just waiting to be lit.

Our giant Christmas countdown candle. (Sorry the picture is awful.)

Our giant Christmas countdown candle. (Sorry the picture is awful.)

Another big traditional Danish Christmas decoration are these paper hearts that you weave together out of different colored paper. They’ve been making them forever. The oldest known heart is one made by Hans Christian Anderson, but the Danes are in agreement that people had been making them well before then. So we learned how to make those and have a couple up in our house now along with these really complicated origami paper stars that are apparently also somewhat traditional because you can buy materials and how to guides at many stores.

Danish paper hearts and stars.

Danish paper hearts and stars.

We’re planning on making lots more because we didn’t bring any ornaments with us to decorate our tree with!

Here are a couple of videos we took of Santa lighting the Christmas lights last Friday, in case you want to experience it first hand. It was pretty neat, especially since it felt like all of Aarhus turned out to see it happen.

And here’s a¬†much better quality video of Santa in previous years. It’s in Danish, but it’s still pretty cool to watch since you get to see Santa in his boat and everything. It’s an advertisement to let everyone known when Santa was coming this year.

By the way, I haven’t been able to figure out why Julemanden carries around a big wood spoon. Can any of my Danish readers tell me? He definitely used it to help him light the tree. Is it like a magical staff?

The Snow is Falling!

Merry Christmas and Good Tub'Year. Source: http://spademanns.wikia.com/wiki/Fil:J-dag_wallpaper_1024x768.jpg

Merry Christmas and Good Tub’Year. Source: http://spademanns.wikia.com/wiki/Fil:J-dag_wallpaper_1024x768.jpg

Well, not the real snow. We’re still hanging in around 12¬įC/54¬įF most days and haven’t seen snow yet.

This refers to something else that’s happening today, the first Friday in November at exactly 8:59 pm. It’s J-Day (J-dag)!¬†The day when all the breweries in Denmark release their special Christmas brew, or jule√łl. The Danes also refer to this time as snowstorm (snestorm) or snowfall (snefald) – the commercials for today all say, “The snow falls on Friday!” (Sneen falder fredag!) – hence the title of my post. It officially kicks off the Christmas season in Denmark.

Tuborg started the whole trend in the 80’s with a blue and white themed animated advertisement. It was so popular, that the next year they made a beer to go along with it, called Julebrug. By now many other breweries have joined in the fun with their own jule√łl. {Just a fun fact: Julebrug is only on the market for 10 weeks, but it’s the 4th best selling beer in Denmark!}

J-dag is apparently a really big deal in Denmark,* and the pubs and bars will be full tonight with people celebrating. Apparently, they even dress up in blue and white and decorate with fake snow aka foam. And Carlsberg employees will go around to different bars singing a traditional Tuborg Christmas Brew song and giving away a free beer.

Tuborg getting ready to deliver the Julebrug and jule-fun!

Tuborg getting ready to deliver the Julebrug and jule-fun! Source: http://www.carlsberggroup.com/brands/Pages/Tuborgjulebryg.aspx#.UnNlCJQ6VOF

In fact, Tuborg’s Julebrug has its own Facebook page with 78,000+ likes!

Unfortunately, Brian and I will be in Sweden tonight and will miss out on all the fun. We planned this trip before we had ever heard about J-dag or Julebrug, so we’ll have to catch the festivities next year.

I’ll leave you with a video of the original animated commercial that started all the fuss. The text at the end reads “Merry Christmas and a Happy Tub’year” (like, as a play on Tuborg because Tub’√•r sounds almost the same).

* Brian asked some of his Danish coworkers about J-dag, and they just kind of rolled their eyes, saying it’s more an excuse for students to get rip-roaring drunk on free beer than anything. I mean, it’s obviously a commercial “holiday,” but the numbers don’t lie. The fact that Julebrug is the 4th selling beer in Denmark despite its limited availability and that J-dag is the best day for Tuborg says to me that the Danes do like their Julebrug.