Saturday, 24 July 2010

Glaedelig Jul!

Trapped in the wilderness of Denmark, Emily Tan observes the strange tribal rituals of these Viking descendents as they celebrate…. Christmas.

CHRISTMAS in Denmark begins (like most things) with beer. More specifically, the special (I’m warning you, Danish is unpronounceable) Julebryg (yool-eh-bouugh) or Christmas Brew. Red-tinged, and sweeter than normal brew, Julebryg is launched annually by all major breweries in Denmark on the first Friday of November at 9pm.

Heralded by wild parties, silly hats, and Christmas carols in every known European language (and several unknown ones once the brew hits), Julebryg is the first sweet taste of Christmas in Denmark – meaning that when this article’s published, the Danes have been singing Christmas carols and whooping up the yuletide spirit for almost two months.

This annual beery tradition is just the beginning of a host of traditions that all Danes must observe when Christmas rolls around because as a nation, Denmark takes Christmas very seriously.“From mid-November till Christmas, I’m booked every weekend, and most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for Christmas lunches, so sorry in advance for neglecting you,” apologised my close Danish friend and housemate, Louise Pedersen (21), “I have lunches with my colleagues, with my university classmates, with the Friday-bar people, with…”

The list goes on to list just about every single activity group she is involved in. A Christmas ‘Lunch’ is a long and elaborate affair of feasting and drinking (that must feature the all-important Danish Schnapps) that typically starts around 6pm and ends anywhere from midnight to 6am, depending on your stamina. Sounds hectic? There’s more.

“Another tradition that’s started is Gløgg (gloog) & Aebleskiver (eh-behl-skee-vuh) parties. Although aebleskiver is a Danish tradition, gløgg is actually a Swedish tradition that we’ve adopted,” Louise, a history major, tends to know these things.

Gløgg is a dangerously alcoholic hot mulled wine made with spices like cinnamon and cloves, raisins, almonds and claret, port, and brandy. Aebleskiver, which translated directly means “apple-slices”, are round pancake balls eaten with powdered sugar and strawberry jam. Yummy though they are, there’s nothing remotely apple or sliced about them.

“Traditionally they did contain apple slices, but its just too hard to make and now tends to be left out,” assured Louise.When December hits, Christmas activity in Denmark hits an almost frenetic pitch. Overnight the streets drip with Christmas lights and on the first Sunday of Advent (which begins four Sundays before Christmas), a giant Christmas tree is lit in Aarhus City Square and all the town gathers to sing Christmas carols, drink gløgg, munch of aebleskiver and buy Advent Calenders.

“Every year, my mom makes me an Advent Candle that counts down the days until Christmas,” said Torsten Nielsen (28), “It’s also counting down the days till my birthday as, believe it or not, (dramatic pause) I’m a Christmas baby!”

Which makes Christmas dinner – already a momentous occasion for Danes – a really huge celebration for Torsten. A traditional dinner includes either roast duck, turkey or goose served with potatoes, gravy and cooked red cabbage. Rice pudding with cherry sauce is served either before or after the meal. A whole almond is hidden in the pudding and whoever finds it, receives the almond present.

The dinner is held with just family (and this is almost sacred) on Dec 24. However, Christmas celebrations extend until Dec 26.

“Why do we celebrate three days? Well, traditionally, Christmas Eve is the really big celebration for us and is only for family. Christmas is open to very close friends, and Boxing Day is for a wider circle of friends. We do this to achieve a sense of hygge with the respective groups,” explained Torsten in answer to my bewildered questions.

Hygge (hiu-guh) is a word that doesn’t translate into any language the closest that can be achieved in English is “cosy” and “comforting”. Central to Danish culture, hygge is what Christmas in Denmark is all about.

Although I’ve been assured that non-Danes will never fully understand hygge-liness, Louise, who has invited me home for Christmas (a great honour and one I truly appreciate), hopes I’ll be able to experience it celebrating Christmas in the true Danish fashion with her family.

When this article was written, Emily was in Aarhus, Denmark on scholarship with the Erasmus Mundus Masters in Journalism Within Globalization programme. She apologises to the Danes for mangling their language in this article, but maintains she has done her best with the impossible.

Published in theSun U! on Dec 19, 2006

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