When politicians talk about preservation of Danishness, I often wonder exactly what they mean. Perhaps Danishness is most clearly expressed through the traditional celebrations. The Danes do love a good celebration. At one point the calendar had so many holy days to celebrate that a whole host of them had to be combined into just one holiday, Store Bededag or Great Prayers Day. Far from all Danish celebrations are of the religious kind. Many, including those appropriated by Christendom, have their genesis in pre-Christian traditions and beliefs.
I love December. It heralds time with family and ‘hygge’. ‘Hygge’ is that Danish concept that escapes English translation: ‘cosiness’ simply does not capture the feeling of warmth, friendship and good conversation associated with the Danish concept. From old Norse, its etymology denotes comfort and encouragement (as in comforting and encouraging someone). In my mind, ‘hygge’ conjures up images of candlelight against dark windows, a big pot of tea and rustic ceramic mugs, held tightly to warm the hands, while sitting with a friend in a deep soft couch, the legs drawn up under us, absorbed in gossip and secrets with laughter ringing. “Oh is that the time? I better go. It has been so ‘hyggeligt’!”
But hygge can also be outdoors, during long light summer nights, gathered with friends on a patio, the grill cold again after the slightly burned sausages and steaks have come off – dirty dishes still in front of us and plentiful red wine in our goblets. And the lark singing as the sun refuses to be completely overwhelmed by the night and the children have fallen asleep on the couch in front of the tv inside. “Thank you for the other night. We really enjoyed it. It was so ‘hyggeligt'”
The ‘hygge’ I associate with December is both indoors and out. The outdoor markets in Tivoli, plentiful with food stalls and merchendise, snow and darkness by 4 o’clock. Long walks in newly fallen snow and coming back inside with red cheeks and that fresh feeling in the entire body.
But best are the indoor pursuits leading up to the evening of 24 December. Here in my brother’s house we have been drinking a lot of tea and coffee, while sitting around the long dining table making confectionary. With marzipan, nuts, melted chocolate and hazelnut nougat, hands sticky with the sweet almond mass, yet some amazing and delicious creations achieved. And with bellies full of nuts, figs and marzipan, we made decorations. The woven hearts and 3D stars are particular favourites, though both can be challenging for the smaller children, who prefer to just cut shapes and glue them together. With plenty of glue.
‘Lille juleaften’ – the 23 December – the old box with decorations was retrieved and its contents combined with newly made ones on the recently erected fir tree. Plus the live candles. Candles on a tree may seem foolish to firefighters, Australians with plastic trees and anyone else who fear a fast xmas fire. But here it is unthinkable not to have live candles everywhere, including on the tree. They add so much to ‘hyggen’ on ‘juleaften’ on 24 December.
When I grew up, we almost always held ‘juleaften’ in my father’s childhood home, often with another clan of cousins. Our ritual was of piling presents and children into the station wagon in the afternoon, my father driving carefully on 20 kms of small, slippery roads to be welcomed by my grandmother – Farmor – at the farm. She had been busy in the kitchen with the feast to be devoured – roast pork, caramelised potatoes, red cabbage and ris-á-la-mande – before the tree would be lit.
After the feast my grandfather – Farfar – ushered everyone into the kitchen, while he and a chosen child lit all the candles on the tree, complete with hearts, angels, stars and fairy hair, glittering up and down the tree. When he finally opened the low kitchen door and let us into the living room, all of the electical lights were off and the tree lit up the room in warm golden light. We would link hands and walk – dance – around the tree, singing the familiar songs, with Farmor sitting in a seat with a small songbook to lead the singing, with her high voice which gradually degraded over the years. After the last loud and fast song that we knew all the words to, even my English speaking cousins – ‘Nu er det jul igen’ – the lights would come back on and the gift orgie commenced with its soundtrack of ripping paper and excited screams. Then, exhausted from the anxious wait and the adrenalin rush from singing and dancing and opening presents, we would pile back into the car, now with the presents in an unopened state and distributed to the right child, to drive back home through the dark night. It was nothing, if not ‘hyggeligt’.
‘Juleaften’ on 24 December is the night of celebration in Denmark rather than xmas day. The following holidays are just that: days off with family and doing things together. ‘Hyggelige’ things, always involving too much food.
I love being with my Danish family during these days. And I love being in Denmark, where Christmas makes sense in ways that Australian marketeers could only dream of, what with their fake snow on shop windows, polar bears and warmly dressed Santa Claus, all in 30 degrees of humid, sweltering antipodian heat. The holiday season is still ‘hyggelig’ in Australia – and with my Australian family we have created our own traditions and rituals to make it so. Yet to me real xmas is what I recall from my childhood memories in cold wintery Denmark. Thank you to my family for making it happen this year.