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:  http://www.bibelselskabet.dk/ombibelen/juletema/julehjerter

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.