The bishop and the goose

As days grow short and dark and the shops start filling with Christmas decorations, you may find yourself facing an abundance of frozen ducks and geese in Danish supermarket. Here is the explanation.

Every year on November 10th, Danes celebrate Mortens Aften – or Morten’s Eve in commemoration of Saint Martin of Tours. This is done having duck or goose for dinner.

And why goose or duck? Well …

The unwilling bishop and the noisy geese

Roast duck / (C)Zyance for WikiCommons

As the story goes – and it is a good one – Saint Martin was a good and pious munk. He lived in France in the 4th century AD. He was so popular that the people of Tours elected him as their new bishop in 371 AD.

Martin, however, was not interested. He wanted to live a quiet convent life. When the people of Tours came to collect their new bishop, Martin hid among a flock of geese. The geese, however, made so much noise that Martin was discovered and off he was dragged to become bishop.

The bishop gets his revenge

To punish the geese the new bishop decreed that every year the people of Tours should celebrate by eating roast goose for dinner on the day of his appointment to bishop.

The truth behind the legend

The historic facts seem to tell a different story. Bishop Martin become a popular bishop of his own free will. He died in 397 AD and was buried on November 11th. After his canonization years later this date became his saint-day.

When the people of Denmark began celebrating Saint Martin by eating roast goose is unclear. It is believed that the tradition stems from the Middle Ages.

(C) Pixabay/open source

In 1616 a Danish bookbinder printed a small book about the popular tradition of eating “Morten’s goose” for dinner on November 10th. The bookbinder explains that the Danes remember the good deeds of the old saint by indulging in a feast of goose or duck.

Goose for the well-off and duck for the common folk.

From Martin to Morten

But why the namechange? In 1536 Denmark became a protestant country. By 1616 the veneration of saints was therefore more or less in the past. The celebration of a roman catholic saint by the name of Saint Martin of Tours could therefore not be allowed. But honouring a pious bishop – that they could do. Especially if he bore the very Danish name “Morten”.

“Saint Martin of Tours” became “Morten Bishop”. And the Danes could continue to commemorate the story of how loudly honking geese revealed the hiding place of the reluctant bishop of Tours.

Why the Danes insist on celebrating their holidays “on the eve of” is another story for another time.

For other stories about what Danes eat at speciale times of the year, you may also like: The Wheat-rolls and the Day of Prayer:

The Gate of Honour

The Danes love to celebrate. And they love the many traditions that come with each individual celebration.

The Gate of Honour recently created for your blogger’s parents.

One tradition is that of the ”Æresport” or the ”Gate of Honour”. This honours the guests of honour at weddings and Silver and Golden anniversaries.

The “Gate of Honour” has the shape of a door or gateway and is placed over the front door or entrance to the house. It is decorated with pine or spruce branches, flowers and Danish flags.

At the top of this festive construction is a wooden sign in the shape of a heart or a shield. It carries the initials of the couple being celebrated.

History unknown

How far back this celebratory gate has been used is uncertain. But we know that they were raised by the people of Copenhagen in celebration of two royal weddings as far back as 1749 and 1790.

It is certain, however, that the tradition is old indeed with ties to rural communities. Here, flowers were more abundant than funds for more expensive finery.

The Golden Anniversary couple under their Gate of Honour

Standing the test of time

Now as then, friends and family gather on the evening before the day of celebration.

These gatherings are often quite festive in and of themselves and culminate with the placing of the Æresport. This takes place under much sh’ing and half-hearted attempts at stealth. This is by default hard as the Æresport is attached by hammering nails into the door frame.

Secrecy – or the feigning of – is as important a part of the Æresport-tradition as the Æresport itself. More often than not, however, everyone knows quite well, what is going on.

Song and music in the morning

On the morning of a Silver or Golden anniversaries, friends, family and neighbours join in to sing the guests of honour out of their home and into the (hopefully) sunshine. Here they are met by singing and music, a glass of champagne or a Danish morning bitter.

Part of the tradition is that the guests of honour remember to act surprised at the whole to-do. They also “just by chance” have prepared breakfast and coffee for however many well-wishers have arrived. And so the merriment continues throughout the day.

The Gate of Honour stands as long as the greenery and flowers can manage. Thus all who come and go, know that a celebration has been held.

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.