The candles in the window

Springtime in Denmark abounds with days of celebration and memorial. Each day with its own set of traditions.

Candles in the windows in Copenhagen on May 4th 2017

One such day is May 4th. The tradition with which it is connected is the placing of candles in all the windows of the house as dusk sets in. A simple gesture symbolizing something far from simple: Freedom.

A light at the end of five dark years
In the beginning of May 1945, Denmark had been living under occupation by Nazi-Germany for five years and one month. Much had happened since the dark spring day of April 9th 1940 when German troops crossed into Denmark and changed everything.

The most important thing at least as it must have felt in May 1945 was that Adolf Hitler’s seemingly invincible army did not seem so invincible any more. News had been censured during the occupation, so not all was known of what was going on throughout Europe.

During the spring of 1945, however, there was a sense that “something” was up. And when news of Hitler’s death on April 30th was proclaimed via official channels, the sense of this “something” became more substantial and the country was humming with rumours and hope.

A historic moment and a radio silence
On the evening of Friday May 4th 1945 this “something” finally had to give: At precisely 8.30 pm, Danes across the country were as per usual tuning in to the daily news in Danish broadcasted from the BBC in London. In so doing they were, defying both official protocol and incessant German attempts to jam the radio signal. But listen they did.

For five minutes, the speaker read the news as usual. Then something unusual happened. The radio went silent for ten long seconds. When the speaker continued, he set off one of the biggest nights of celebration in the history of Denmark as he spoke the words:

“At this moment we are receiving the news that Montgomery [the British Field Marshal] has announced that the German troops in Holland, Northwest Germany and in Denmark have surrendered. This is London. We repeat…”

The surrender was not to go into effect until the morning of May 5th at 8 am. But the Danes did not seem to care. People stormed into the streets where they celebrated, cheered and made bonfires, on which they burned the hated blackout curtains they had been forced to live with since the beginning of the occupation. No light was allowed to seep out of the houses – now, all people wanted was to let the light flood out.

As dusk set in half an hour later, people across the country spontaneously began lighting candles in their windows, replacing the blackout curtains with light.

“Closed because of joy … Hurrah”
Source: Wikicommons, copyright free photo.

Should or shouldn’t
Later it was learned what happened during the ten seconds of silence in the evening broadcast from London. What seemed like ten long seconds of just silence, was ten seconds of intense drama in the small Danish radio studio in London:

As he was reading the news, the speaker was handed a note with the ground-breaking news. He quickly needed to decide whether to read the news at once or wait to have it confirmed. This, however, would mean that the news of the liberation would be a day late in reaching the Danish population. This could have dire consequences for civilians and resistance fighters alike, who had become more and more active as the war seemed to be drawing to its close.

In the end, the speaker decided to read the news. Thereby he inadvertently sparked the tradition, which you may still see in homes across Denmark should you go for an evening walk on the evening of the 4th of May.   

In the clip below, you can hear the radio announcement from May 4th 1945. Unfortunately without English subtitles. First you hear the call signal of the BBC followed by the Prince of Denmark March and the words “This is London, BBC sending to Denmark”. If you jump to 1:55 you will hear the silence begin at 2:00 as the speaker turns of his microphone to verify the message he has been given. At 2:11 he returns with the message of the liberation.

Notes for another day: The days following the “Liberation announcement” as it has since been known, were days of both joy and reckoning. And on the island of Bornholm, joy soon turned to fear again as Russian troops landed on the island, occupying the island and its citizens until April of 1946. So not all was peaceful and good yet – but that is another story to tell.


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.