The dark spring day in 1940

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.

Flags fly at half mast on April 9, 2018, at one of Copenhagen’s many bridges.

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.

The Christmas Part 1: Hearts, stars and other homemade decorations

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.

A small selection of homemade hearts, stars and paper cones.

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.

A (slightly worn) step by step guide to the braided Christmas heart.

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.

Should you want to give it a go yourself just give it a go:

Julestjerne, christmas star, Denmark, Danish, tradition, star
This is what the instructions for the braided star have almost always looked like – luckily now there is also Youtube.

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.

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 autumn-break – From backbreaking potato-harvest to fun-filled family time

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.

Children hard at work in a potato-field.
Photo curtesy of Odense Bys Museer

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.