The leaves of the beech tree

At some point during the weeks of early spring, you may come across a somewhat surprising news story in the Danish media: That green leaves have been observed on a beech tree somewhere in Denmark(!).

This piece of news, which some years may be served with an almost ”BREAKING NEWS”-worthy vibe, will include the location of the first, green beech tree. And quite often it seems to be a bit of a competition between the different parts of the country to see, who will be the bearer of the news that spring has indeed sprung.

But why this keen interest in the leaves of a tree? Or rather of this tree: The beech.

More than just a tree
The beech tree is one of the most common trees in Denmark, covering about 17% of the country’s forests. In Danish history and folklore, however, it is much more than “just” a tree: It is one of the national symbols of Denmark, as important as the Little Mermaid and the red-and-white flag.

The beech grew in symbolic worth during the Danish Romantic movement of the 1800s. While the innovations and societal change of the Industrial Revolution grew stronger, the Romantics praised the grandeur of nature in art and literature.

There is a lovely land
In 1819 the Romantic poet Adam Oehlenschläger wrote a poem, which has since become one of the two national anthems of Denmark: Der er et yndigt land / There is a lovely land.

In his poem, Oehlenschläger (whose names most Danish school children dread having to spell as they inevitably encounter him at some point or other) mentions the beech tree as one of the defining characteristics of the Danish countryside and thereby all that is Danish:

There is a lovely land
with beech trees grand aplenty
encircled by the sea.
Her hills and vales are manifold.
Her name of old is Denmark
And she is Freya’s home.

The Romantics loved tales of the national language, culture and history while praising the ideals GOODNESS, TRUTH and BEAUTY – all characteristics, which are evident in Oehlenschläger’s poem: Denmark is not only an ancient country with a proud history. It is the home of Freya, the Norse goddess of beauty, love and fertility. And the beech tree stands sentinel over Freya’s hall.

Beech versus oak. People vs. king.
During the 1800s the beech covered more than half of the Danish forests. And as it was so manifold, the tree became the symbol of the people and the new democratic endeavours of the age. After generations of absolute monarchy, Denmark was moving towards a more democratic rule and its first constitution in 1849.

Generations of Danish monarchs had been symbolically represented by another popular Danish tree: The mighty oak. The oak symbolised strength and longevity and as it was used to build the ships of the royal Danish navy it was strongly linked to the monarch.

However, as the absolute power of the Danish monarch was coming to its end (which happened in 1848), the Industrial Revolution brought steel onto the naval scene, replacing the need for the oak.

Power to the people
Instead, the power of the people was on the rise. And the beech tree – first to turn green in the spring – became the symbol of the new age. The age of the people … or so it seemed to the Romantics who wrote about and painted the mighty beech with great fervour. 

As the year turns and winter moves into spring, it is therefore not hard to infer the symbolic meaning of watching for the first green leaves on the beeches of the Danish forests.

To most Danes nowadays, however, it may well just be a herald of the spring. Still symbolic enough, of course, to be given a spot on the evening news every year.

The darkness – or notes on how to cope with the Danish winter

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.

Candles give light and warmth and help create the illusion of a warm and cosy nest against the dark days.

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.

Get out!
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!!

The city of Aarhus has been sporting this amazing “blanket of light” over the main shopping street for a little over 10 years now. A perfect barrier against the dark sky.

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.

The Weather – a love/hate relationship

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.

What made Danes talk about the weather in the summer of 2017: