April 9th is one of the many official Danish flag days. Days on which the Danish flag is to be raised at public, state and other official buildings – along with technically anyone else who owns a flagpole. Most of these official flag days fall during the Spring time months.
April 9th is probably one of the darker ones on the list. It marks the day in 1940 when Denmark was occupied by the German army during World War 2. To remember this dark day in Danish history, the flag is to be flown at half mast from sunrise untill noon – or 2 minutes past noon to be precise – at which point it is raised to full mast until sunset.
The day that changed everything In the early pre-dawn hours of April 9th 1940 – at 4.20 am to be precise – German troops crossed the border between Denmark and Germany. A short while later, German fighter planes started flying over the Danish countryside, bound for airports and places of military importance.
Only six hours later, the occupation was complete. Faced with the choice of agreeing to an unconditional surrender or the complete annihilation of the inferior Danish military forces, the Danish government had chosen to capitulate: Denmark was occupied and would remain so until May of 1945 – a little over five years later.
All across the country, German planes dropped printed statements, informing the citizens of Denmark of the occupation of Denmark and Norway (which was occupied at the same time as Denmark). In this brief statement written in – as it was noted with some indignation – very poor Danish, the citizens of Denmark were informed that the occupation was rooted in a well-meaning wish from the German forces to protect Denmark and Norway from a British invasion. There cannot, however, be much doubt at what the citizens of the two now occupied countries would have preferred, had they been given the choice.
Light and dark go hand in hand Since the liberation in 1945, April 9th has been a day of remembrance with room for contemplation. Today, almost 80 years later, some find it strange to keep remembering the beginning of the war. However, the day remains as an official day of mourning, remembrance and – as the flag is raised to full mast at noon – contemplation of what came after five dark years.
December is here and so – sooner than we think, as usual – is Christmas with its preparations, celebrations and decorations. Everything “as per usual” in the traditional way, just as it should be. The light – or rather many lights – in the dark season.
Just as in many other countries it is possible to buy most of what is needed for the Danish Christmas. But there are still some things that we Danes like to make ourselves… like decorations for the Christmas tree.
No decorations without a tree The Christmas tree made its first appearance in Denmark in 1808 in the manor house of the Holsteinborg family on the island of Zealand (the largest of the Danish islands, on which Copenhagen is also found).
The newlywed Countess of Holsteinborg had German relatives who on Christmas eve would place a freshly cut pine tree in their living room. They decorated it with candles and finery made of paper before dancing around the tree, singing hymns and carols. The countess brought the tree with her to her new home.
A few years later, the Christmas tree made it to Copenhagen. By the 1910s it had become part of the tradition in most households. Thus the Christmas tree was brought to Denmark and with it the need for decorations for the tree.
Hearts, stars and cones for the Christmas tree
The first Christmas trees were sparsely decorated. This began to change in the 1840s, and since then new ideas have come and gone. A few things have remained the same and (often) homemade: Braided hearts, folded paper stars and finely coiled Christmas cones.
The braided hearts and the Christmas cones serve two equally important purposes : Decoration and ”keeper of sweets” – a throwback to the time when the tree was mostly decorated with edible ornaments.
And it is still one of the most loved pre-Christmas traditions in Danish schools and families to join in “cut and paste” get-togethers. The results may be slightly lopsided, but they are homemade and that is what counts.
The festival of lights – and hearts ”Christmas is the festival of hearts” is a popular Danish saying, and the braided paper hearts, which most Danes put on their Christmas trees is a purely Danish Christmas tradition.
The oldest known example of a braided paper heart was made in the 1860s by none other than world-famous Danish fairy-tale author Hans Christian Andersen. Whether this was meant to be hung on a Christmas tree, however, is uncertain, as this heart does not have a handle. In 1871 a magazine printed directions on how to produce your own heart – now with a handle, and since then, these pretty, heart-shaped baskets have been a staple on the Danish Christmas tree in a plethora of designs from the very easy to the frustratingly difficult.
The star – a symbol of Christmas and a DIY headache
It is unsure just how old the tradition is of creating paper stars out of strips of paper, but a “how-to” guide was first printed in 1891 in Germany. The stars were traditionally white but the necessary paper strips may now be bought in many different colours and patterns – and they can be notoriously difficult to get the hang of.
“Learning-by-doing” is by far the best way to proceed and it seems that you either “get it” or you don’t. It is, however, part of the Christmas-hygge and fun – and for the “get it’s” it is always fun to follow the frustrations of the “don’t get it’s”.
Coiled cones filled with sweets The Christmas cones are among the decorations, which have been on Danish Christmas trees the longest. Cones were traditionally used as packaging for smaller items of goods – spices, coffee, sweets, sugar, etc. by merchants. They were easy to make and with an added handle they were ready to go on the tree and be filled with sweets and goodies.
As with the braided hearts, you may use any colour or design your heart desires, or use the “ready to cut”, which are available in many Danish stores. In supermarkets and the like, you may find Christmas “hobbyposer” with all you need. And for a more traditional feel, give the museum shops of Arbejdermuseet (The Workers’ Museum) in Copenhagen or Den Gamle By (The Old Town) in Aarhus a visit.
It is November 16th 2017 in Copenhagen. It is also day number “I’ve lost count” of murkiness of this past week. The signs are quite clear: Fall has fallen. Daylight saving time has ended and Denmark is once again settling into the time honoured Danish tradition of waiting out the dark months of “Winter Time”, as we move towards days of less than 7 hours of daylight.
But how do you cope with the darkness and greyness? Well, there is a lot of counting the days until winter solstice when the days “turn” again, but there is also a small but tried and tested range of coping mechanisms that make the whole thing rather more enjoyable.
The ability to forget the inevitable “Winter is coming!” For fans of Game of Thrones these words are synonymous with the goings on in the mythical land of Westeros. To the Danes, they are full of premonition and – strangely enough – often pronounced feelings of surprise:
Premonition as we know what is coming: Ever shortening days with little sun and much grey and that special “moist” coldness of a country surrounded by ocean. Surprise as we seem to have once again happily repressed the fact that the lovely days of long, bright summer nights come at a price.
Even the media seem surprised. Or at least you would think so, as the shortening of the days, is followed closely until they can once again with an air of “BREAKING NEWS” (for it is that important!) announce that “we are heading towards the light again!”… and start to report on how much longer the days are becoming. We do love discussing the Danish weather!
It is therefore, perhaps, small wonder that the darkness can seem a bit daunting to visitors. And should you be spending your first winter(s) in Denmark, you may wonder how the Danes cope. For cope we do, and despite being perpetually surprised by the turning of the year, we have developed rather good ways of coping – if we do say so ourselves.
Lights, candles … action The main coping strategy for the Danish winter is found in the Danish concept of “HYGGE”; a culturally shared knack for creating cosiness and adding a dash of “je ne sais quoi” to social gatherings and interior decorating, which in recent years seems to have caught the attention of people across the globe (more will follow on this in a later post).
More often than not the Danish winter weather does not afford much sun or snow, so rather than excelling on ski slopes and the like, we excel at making ourselves comfy and cosy. And the most important ingredient here is “light” – lots of light: Candles, twinkle-lights, candles, warm fires in fireplaces (for the lucky ones), more candles …
In 2014 a study by YouGov of the use of candles in the EU, placed Denmark far ahead of every other country, showing that every Dane on average went through 5.79 kilos of candles in 2013. Austria came in second with 3.16 kilos per person – more than 2.5 kilos behind the Danes. Only the Norwegians, it seems, can beat the Danes on this point, going through almost 2 kilos more per year than the Danes.
Candles go on dinner tables, coffee tables, in windows, in out-door decorations, doing their best to keep the darkness at bay.
Danish winters are not all darkness, all-day twilight and rainy days. There will be days of sunshine, crispy frost and – if luck is on our side – snow. And when these rare days arrive there is only one thing to be said: GET OUT!!
If it is at all possible, it is advisable to find some way to go outside, should the sun show itself. It is, of course, not easy if you are at work, but it is well worth considering bundling up and eating your lunch “al fresco” in the sunshine. Not only will this give you a short but sweet dose of the vitamin D from the sun, which all Northerners crave during the winter months. It will also give you a chance to join in another time-honoured Danish tradition: The making of jokes about the “round, bright thing in the sky”, which has materialised out of nowhere.
It may be dark, and we may feel that we will never see the end of it – but we still have our sense of humour, and you are more than welcome to join in.
This too shall pass
To sum up: The darkness may seem a nuisance, but it does have its good sides. So hunker down with the Danes, stock up on candles, come up with every possible excuse to invite friends over or out and remember:
This too shall pass, and in the end, these months will make the long days of summer seem even more wondrous.
It seems that the seasons have truly changed and autumn has reached Denmark this week (the week of October 14th-22nd 2017). Temperatures are slightly milder than usual, but the leaves on the trees are turning yellow and are embarking on their windswept waltzes across streets and gardens. And then, of course, we are in the middle of the event, which more than anything heralds the arrival of Autumn in Denmark: The autumn school break.
As the Danish school year begins in mid-August and as Denmark is more or less holiday-free from about June to December, the Danish schoolchildren are in much need of a break once October comes around. This is why ”week 42” or ”Autumn-vacation” as it is popularly known is a much longed for time for travels, out-door activities or just time off with parents or grandparents.
Around the country, tourist attractions and cultural institutions from museums to theatres, libraries and amusement parks offer a plethora of workshops, exhibits, performances and activities for children and families – making it a fun, if rather busy, time to go exploring in Denmark.
However, this week of fun and relaxation became a part of the Danish school year not because the children needed a week off, but because the children were needed at home on their parents’ farms.
Potato “vacation” – a week of hard work and long days When the first Danish “School law” calling for compulsory education was passed in 1814, it was recognized that children living in the rural areas were not able to attend school as often as their urban counterparts.
Children were needed on the family farms to make ends meet and so they generally only attended school every other day and parents were allowed to keep their children out of school “as needed” during sowing and harvest time. This included the harvesting of potatoes and turnips during the early autumn months (they grew different potatoes then than now – which needed to stay in the ground longer).
By 1899, however, it was recognized that it was too difficult for teachers in the rural area to get any proper work done in school when the children were gone from school on random days and often with short notice.
In 1899 it was therefore decided to name “week 42” – typically the third week of October – the official “Potato week”, where the harvesting could take place while making sure that the children well back in their classrooms the following Monday.
From hard work to relaxation The “potato vacation” remained dedicated to the potato harvest up through the first half of the 20th century. But from the end of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s, the week gradually transformed into a week of relaxation as adult labourers were hired to do the hard work instead.
And so while, farmers across the country are still working hard to bring in the late potato harvest, to most children and families the “Potato vacation” has become the “Autumn vacation” – and the heaviest workload is now most likely felt by the parents, who have to figure out how to keep their children entertained during a whole week off from school.
As for the children – there are probably still a fair share who get their hands nice and dirty during the week, but that will most likely be from exploring the forest floor or playing in the falling leaves rather than from picking potatoes from the ground.
Danes like dairy. A puzzling variety of dairy it seems. Or so I gather from the exclamation of two expat friends when asked about Danish peculiarities: “The DAIRY PRODUCTS! Why are there so many of them?!”
And yes. We Danes like our Dairy products. From our milks to our cheeses, our butter to our “cultured milk products”. In this we do not vary greatly from other agricultural cultures. But we do have products, which are not cross-culturally mainstream.
Thus this short guide to the dairy section of the Danish supermarkets: From the different types of what is essentially yoghurt to the colour scheme, which has helped Danes identify their milk since the 1960s.
To each his own – sweet, light, mini or skimmed? Milk has been an invaluable part of survival in what became Denmark since the Neolithic age. When previously nomadic peoples settled down and began living off the land – in approximately 3700 B.C. – milk became one of the basic foodstuffs and it is still very much a part of the Danish identity.
Today you may find these choices in most supermarkets:
Literally “sweet milk”. For many years the only type of milk with a fat content of 3.5%
Letmælk “Light milk”. Introduced in 1973 with a reduced fat content of 1.5%. From the early 80s onwards, this was the most popular milk until the arrival of the “mini milk”.
Minimælk Introduced in 2001 as part of the low-fat trend of the new millennium. Sports a 0,5% fat content but similar in taste to Letmælk (NB! … this can be contested and spark serious discussions).
Skummetmælk With only 0,1% fat and for many years thought only of use for feeding animals.
All of these come – naturally – as both “normal” and organic.
How to navigate in the supermarket … the secret is in the colour In 1964 a colour scheme for the packaging of milk products was decided upon to help the consumers identify, which milk was at hand: Dark blue for Sødmælk. Red for whipping cream. Green for buttermilk (kærnemælk). Brown for chocolate milk.
As products with reduced fat were introduced, the colours were adjusted within this colour scheme. The paler the colour, the lower the fat content: Letmælk = light blue. Minimælk = pale blue. Skummetmælk = grey. Reduced cream = orange.
Today the dairy colour scheme is as much a part of Danish culture as the Little Mermaid. A rogue dairy did once try to switch things up by introducing Sødmælk in a red carton, but the experiment ended as unhappy consumers complained at having grabbed the wrong product.
The yoghurts – or the wonderful world of Danish “cultured milk products” It is when looking at the “thicker”, breakfast-oriented milk products akin to yoghurt that the “Danish way” starts flying solo. For next to the “regular” yoghurts you find a range of Danish dairy particularities, which are in effect variations over the theme “lactic acid bacteria”:
The people of Caucasus have their kefir. The Icelanders their skyr. The Danes have their A38, their Tykmælk and their Ymer. All may be eaten alone, with müsli or with the all time Danish favourite “rugdrys” – crumpled ryebread mixed with brown sugar. All may seem to taste somewhat the same, but most people tend to have their favourite.
A-38 is the all-time bestseller among the cultured milk products.
Tykmælk or literally “thick milk” is the richest and oldest of the products, having been on the market since about 1880.
Ymer is named after the character Ymir from Norse Mythology who was present at the creation of the world – and it is higher in protein than Tykmælk and A38.
Ylette is the “skinny” version of Ymer. Same protein, less fat.
Milk by subscription and a little sunshine on a spoon To sum it up – Danes still are very much a dairy nation and the Danish Health Authority recommends an intake of half a litre of milk a day. For many years now, it has even been possible to subscribe to milk in the Danish schools, so that your child receives .25 litres of milk with their lunch every day.
And then, of course, the reliance on dairy has resulted in some quite delightful products. A personal favourite is the “little sunshine on a spoon”: The typical Danish summer dessert Koldskål (literally “cold bowl”) – made with Tykmælk, buttermilk, eggs and vanilla. It is a cool and sweet way to finish a summer meal and may in case of summer inertia even substitute the evening meal entirely. That it is eaten with small biscuits that are only slightly less sugary than the vanilla cookies Danes eat for Christmas makes it no lesser a delight.
And with this, there is nothing more to say than – go forth and conquer the Danish dairy section.
If you are visiting Denmark around Midsummer’s Eve, join a Danish family celebration or are settling into a new job at a major Danish company like Rambøll – you may suddenly find the Danes around you bursting into song.
Kids. Adults. Business leaders with their employees. School children and their teachers. University students and their professors. Complete strangers in public libraries.
They all sing together. And we Danes love it.
We sing at work to start the day. We sing at the lighting of the town’s Christmas tree. Sometimes at the beginning of a meeting. We sing on the first day of school or university. We sing at random public events and holidays throughout the year – and at city cafés of an evening.
We have songs for almost every occasion: From Christmas to Midsummer. To mark the passing of the seasons. To start and end the day. To remember historical events – even the ones we would rather forget.
In short: Danes love to sing – together.
Singing together – a very short historical overview of a long history of singing People have been singing together for centuries in many parts of the world as part of religious services or in the singing of national anthems. In Denmark, however, we seem to have taken the idea a step further even than our Nordic neighbours with the concept of “FÆLLESSANG” – literally translated “common-singing”. And the phenomenon has been experiencing a new renaissance over the past few years.
Like the Danish word for community – “FÆLLESSKAB” or “common-ness” – the purpose of “FÆLLESSANG” is to pull people together in a common or shared experience, where each individual contributes with what he or she has to give. In “Fællessang” there are no soloists, but everyone contributes with their voice to make a common musical experience.
A rather simplified historical explanation of how the Danish tradition of singing together came about dates the phenomenon to the dawn of the Age of the Nation States in the 19th century. The writing and singing of new Father-/Motherland-songs became a way of bringing people together and of forging new common national identities – in Denmark more-so than in most other countries.
As the 19th century progressed, Denmark and the Danish people went through times of both triumph and humiliation. The act of singing together brought hope and a strengthened sense of national identity no matter the occasion.
Singing in times of war During the early years of the German occupation of the Second World War (1940-1945), singing was used as peaceful resistance against the German occupational forces while bringing the newly occupied nation together in dark times. At so-called “Alsang” – “All sing” – events, people would come together and sing, usually ending the event with the singing of the national anthem. The first event was held in Aalborg on July 4th 1940 with roughly 1500 participants.
The movement quickly spread to the rest of the country and on September 1st 1940, a coast-to-coast Alsang took place with about 720.000 people joining nationwide – 150.000 in Copenhagen alone. Alsangs were held regularly throughout Denmark until 1943, when the occupational forces prohibited public gatherings.
Then and now In recent years the idea of FÆLLESSANG has gained new popularity as schools, universities, businesses and public institutions have integrated it into their daily routines.
Whereas the act of singing together in the original form was an act of strengthening the sense of shared nationality or a common conviction, FÆLLESSANG in its contemporary form seems to be primarily the sense of “togetherness” and of creating something unique together. The “I” still becomes a “we”, but the songs that are sung are of less importance and greater diversity. The main point is that songs are sung together.
This may also explain the many new types of FÆLLESSANG events popping up here and there. In smart city cafés or in a Copenhagen public square for the annual Kulturnat (Night of Culture) in October. Or as my own personal favourite:
The Marathon Sing-along held every year on June 21st from 7 am to1030 pm in celebration of the summer solstice. This event brings together hundreds of people of all ages and walks of life in singing the songs of one of Denmark’s most popular songbooks from cover to cover.
Bodily benefits of singing Singing together, research tells us, is not only good for the voice. It also produces a sense of togetherness and belonging, lowers stress levels, releases endorphins – the body’s very own “happy hormone” – and quite incredibly, it makes hearts literally beat together as one.
And so it seems that there are historical, social and medical explanations for the Danish “singing together”. And should you get the chance, please join us – or just listen in.
In need of a perfect conversation-starter for interacting with the Danes? The Weather is your go-to subject.
We Danes have a long-standing love/hate relationship with our weather. We love/hate to talk about it despite the fact that it is comparably uneventful: We do have the occasional hurricane, snow storms or torrential rains (and must, according to the national weather service DMI, prepare ourselves for more of these in the future). We do not, however, do tornadoes, cyclones or other forms of extreme weather.
So why this fascination with the weather? Needless to say, it is hard to pinpoint exactly why we revert so easily to this particular topic of conversation. However, being a country with deep roots in both farming and fishing, it does make some sense:
To fishermen heading out to sea or farmers anxiously following the development of their crops, knowing the weather was and is of great importance. In fact, there is a long standing joke that Danish farmers are never really happy with the weather: Either it is too dry or too wet, too hot or too cold, too much sun or too little.
But in all fairness, Danish farmers are not the only ones, who are this particular about the weather – this is a trait shared by most Danes.
We really, really need the sun – like REALLY need it
Another reason that we are especially keen to discuss the weather, may be found in our Northerly geographical position, which lands us in the winter-darkness/summer-lightness zone. Anyone visiting Denmark during the winter or spending their first winter in Denmark will, I think, quickly attest to the fact that the Danish winter darkness can be a tough thing to get through.
It gets especially hard if the winter is mild. Mild weather often means days of perpetual greyness without even the slightest glimpse of the sun in the sparse hours between sunrise and sunset. Cold temperatures and snow often bring more sunshine, but alas: Denmark rarely enjoys the same level of winter as many of our neighbours in Norway and Sweden (which is also why Danish participation at Olympic Winter Games is usually dwarfed by our Scandinavian neighbours – but I will return to this at a later time).
The greyness of winter needs to be countered by the White Nights of summer, which may be enjoyed between May and the beginning of August. If the summer weather does not perform as expected – making it hard to “refuel” on sunshine, light, and Vitamin D – the natives start getting restless. The summer of 2017 has been just such a summer.
As we watch the calendar once more turn us onto the path leading to winter darkness, you as a visitor may notice our rising frustration. This is when the Danes start to talk about, discuss, grumble and curse at – the weather.
But come back another year, where there is sun aplenty, and we will have forgotten all about this. We will still talk about the weather, though … as always.
With “Why Danes Do, What They Do, When They Do It” I wish to give visitors to Denmark, expats making their home in Denmark, and any one who is new to or curious about all things Danish, a look at the history of Denmark, Danish traditions, norms, mores and peculiarities:
From why we put real candles on our Christmas trees and how we celebrate our annual milestones – to our love/hate relationship with the weather, the people who shaped our country (be they fictional or real, for “Hamlet the Dane” cannot be left out) and, of course, our illusive concept of “hygge”.
In other words: The why, what, when and how of Denmark, Danish culture and the Danes.
I am a storyteller.
I love bringing stories to life – from great tales of fiction to great tales from history, art and culture. Thank you for joining me – and please share.