By Shelley Boettcher
Dancing around the Christmas tree. Rice pudding and cherry sauce until your stomach hurts. Shots of fiery akvavit (a spirit made with dill and caraway) and herring for breakfast. What’s not to love about a Danish Christmas? Maybe the herring, to be honest.
But the rest? I can’t imagine a holiday without it.
To clarify, I’m not Danish. I married into a Danish family 20 years ago and almost instantly, it was clear that come Christmas time, some traditions were not negotiable. That’s OK by me. Now, every year, I dig out the nissen (elf) ornaments and scatter them around the house. We dust off the wooden advent wreath and put candles everywhere. And we bake dozens of butter cookies and paper-thin spiced cookies loaded with almonds and powdered sugar.
Some would argue the start of the Danish holiday season is J-Dag (Julebryg Day, a.k.a. Christmas beer day), the first Friday in November — the day the country’s official holiday beer is released. The tradition isn’t exactly ancient; it was started by Carlsberg, the company behind Tuborg beer in the early 1980s, but quickly became next thing to a national holiday.
Now, even smaller breweries get in on the act, throwing parties and releasing limited-edition beers with cool labels. I’m not one to say no to a holiday that involves special beer and parties, but sadly, although the tradition has spread to nearby Sweden and even Serbia, it’s not as big a tradition in Canada. At least I get plenty of glogg, Danish mulled wine made with baking spices, oranges and almonds.
Around our house, Christmas officially begins on Dec. 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas. That’s when the Danish Santa begins his nightly visits, leaving tiny toys or candy — Danish chocolate or Lego — in a shoe that each child leaves in the window. He visits every night until Christmas Eve morning; the following day, of course, the Canadian Santa takes over his duties. Our boys have outgrown the tradition, but they still faithfully put their traesko — wood-soled leather clogs they had when they were tiny — in a window every night.
Food shopping starts almost as early as the gift giving. In late November or early December, we make a pilgrimage to Alpine Sausage, a tiny grocery store in Glamorgan Shopping Centre. Throughout the year, it’s quiet, the place you go when you crave salted licorice, Danish cold cuts or rye bread.
But a few weeks before Christmas, the lineups begin. Go, and you’ll be swept up in the fun, surrounded by Danish, Icelandic, Swedish or Dutch conversations. (The shop sells many Nordic and Scandinavian foods.) Old-timers get caught up on gossip, and everyone loads up on what they need for the holidays.
We’re there mostly for stocking stuffers (sodavand, a.k.a. Danish pop or little pink marzipan pigs, a cute good-luck gift) and medisterpolse. No Christmas would be right without that big coil of pork sausage that’s served throughout the year, but is especially important during the holidays. It’s boiled, then fried on Christmas Eve, and served alongside roast duck stuffed with dried prune plums.
Other side dishes include brunede kartofler, little potatoes cooked in butter and sugar, gravy and a heap of sweet-sour red cabbage, a tradition my husband’s family shares with my own German-Canadian heritage. While they’re not a particularly Christmas tradition, we’ll often add frikadeller, Danish meatballs, which are easy to prepare in advance and are always a hit with kids.
Dessert is always a massive bowl of risalamande, a whipped cream, almond and rice pudding served with cherry sauce. One whole blanched almond is hidden in the bowl, underneath crushed almonds. Whoever finds the whole one wins a prize and good luck for the following year. But there’s a catch. No matter how stuffed they are from the main meal, everyone must keep eating the pudding until the bowl is empty. (Or the winner confesses.)
Afterward, if anyone still has energy, we hold hands and dance around the Christmas tree, which is laden with more nissen, three-dimensional folded paper stars and hearts, and long strands of little Danish flags. We sing songs, too; they’re often in Danish but cheat sheets with the lyrics are shared for us non-speakers, who mumble painfully along. Speaking of painful, I haven’t forgotten about the pickled herring.
Sure, come the morning of Christmas Day, we devour wienerbrot (what the Danes in my life call Danishes) and ebelskiver — tiny Danish popover-style pancakes served with powdered sugar, jam or maple syrup.
But we always have a jar of herring in the fridge, too, ready to share with rye bread and thinly sliced red onions. It isn’t be the best-smelling or tastiest Danish dish, and my husband, the Dane, actually refuses to eat it.
But, as we all know, tradition is tradition, especially at Christmas. Glaedelig jul!
Check out Shelley’s recipe for Brunede Kartofler.