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.