A Very Danish Christmas (And Celebrating Other Holidays Abroad)

Over a month ago, I spent Halloween with my visiting family. Aside from decorating the amusement park Tivoli in honor of Halloween, it’s not a very big holiday here in Denmark. In February, the Danes celebrate a sort of Halloween like holiday: Fastelavn, a festival where everyone dresses up in costumes (not usually scary ones) and they beat open a barrel full of candy like a pinata, originating from the old days when they used to beat cats out of the barrels. Halloween is more a time for wearing scary costumes so my visiting family thought it was funny that I showed up dressed as a dog. My visiting family’s neighborhood is pretty unique in that a decent portion of the neighborhood celebrates Halloween since there are many families who have done a fair amount of traveling and also have kids. My host brothers were dressed as a zombie and Michael Jackson from Thriller. About a fourth of their neighborhood participates so we went around trick or treating to different houses that were lit up with candles signaling their participation (so Danish.) I was amused to see so many houses passing out black licorice, a Danish favorite, as I imagine American children spitting it out in disgust. While I was sad to miss Halloween in the states, I haven’t really enjoyed it that much ever since it stopped being socially acceptable for me to go trick or treating.

Thanksgiving is not celebrated in Denmark for obvious reasons (meaning we had class that day sadly) but it was sweet since most of my professors made sure to wish us “Happy Thanksgiving” and my program even offered a stipend that you could apply for to cook Thanksgiving dinner with Danish and American friends. For Thanksgiving, my sustainability program offered a Thanksgiving dinner that we could invite guests to. I was going to bring my Danish roommate but she had to work so I ended up bring my fellow Mawrter friend Prianna. It was potluck style but they provided the essentials including TURKEY (which is nearly impossible to find/extremely expensive in Denmark.) I completely stuffed myself since it’s so rare for me to get a free dinner, especially one that I don’t have to cook for myself. It was nice to spend Thanksgiving with a friend from “home” as Thanksgiving tends to be the holiday that makes me most homesick. Even at Bryn Mawr, I was unable to go home so a friend let me spend it with her family which I was very thankful but nothing quite compares to spending it with your own family.

Thanksgiving food: NOMZ

The holiday I’ve been looking forward to ever since I got here though has been CHRISTMAS!!! Since Europe does not widely celebrate Halloween or Thanksgiving, they go all out for Christmas as early as October. There is no better place in the world to celebrate Christmas than Europe. I saw decorations in nearly every city I visited. No place compares to Denmark however. Both my town and Copenhagen have their trees all lit, decorated with hearts (which is associated with Christmas here rather than Valentine’s Day). The Danes celebrate Christmas exactly the way I love to celebrate it: non-religious (even the name “Jul”, like our word yule, has no religious connotations to it), full of delicious food, and all about being “hyggeligt” and spending time with those you care about. Christmas in Denmark is a month long affair. During December, Danes exchange gifts, dance in a circle around Christmas trees, and have Julefrokosts (extravagant Christmas lunches with every traditional Danish dish you could imagine). One of the things they eat during Christmas is called risalamande, which is essentially rice pudding mixed with whipped cream mixed with almonds (hence the name, rice with almonds) topped with warm cherry sauce, and it is quite possibly the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. I’ve already bought it several times from Netto, the nearby grocery store, for dessert.

Stroget, the main shopping street, all decked out for the holidays

One Danish Christmas tradition I got to participate in was the annual trip to Tivoli, the amusement park that inspired Disneyland and is only a few blocks from where my classes are held. They completely decorate it for Christmas. This year it was themed as “Russian Christmas meets Nordic Christmas” so there were nesting dolls everywhere and a beautiful lit up version of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. I got to go with my Danish class; I had actually never been there before because I didn’t want to pay to go in since I knew I was going for free. We got to drink gløgg, the traditional Danish Christmas drink of spiced red wine with almonds and raisins with hard liquor mixed in, and ate æbleskiver, hot, fluffy doughnut-like balls eaten with jam and powdered sugar. Afterwards, we explored and got to see an incredible light/water show on the pond to the score of The Nutcracker. I didn’t go on any of the rides since they cost money individually (about 10 dollars per ride bleh) and it was way too cold anyways. Plus after going to theme parks like Disneyland, Universal Studios, Knott’s Berry Farm, etc., the rides were a little unimpressive. The atmosphere was incredible though; it reinstated my joy and excitement for Christmas, no joke. I felt like I was five years old again! One of favorite parts of Denmark thus far.

Tivoli all lit up

I also got to celebrate Christmas with my visiting family! It was my visiting host mom’s dad’s birthday so the whole family was there. We ate homemade æbleskiver and drank gløgg and hot chocolate. Afterwards, I discovered a new tradition that I hadn’t even learned about in my Danish class: making marzipan creations! While in the U.S we might build gingerbread houses or decorate cookies, the Danes dye this sweet almond paste with food coloring to make shapes and designs. They combine this with nougat, which is essentially solid hazelnut paste: so good. We then got to pour melted chocolate over whatever we wanted and add things like coconut or walnuts. I made a reindeer, a Christmas tree, a stocking, and lots of small creations. The adults laughed at me as they created baking show-esque creations that were pretty and simple; apparently mainly children are the ones to make things out of their marzipan. They even let me borrow a tin box to bring home my creations so I got to snack on yummy marzipan throughout the following week. At first I wasn’t a huge fan of marzipan but then I started to eat it more and more and now I’m addicted! I was so happy I got to spend Christmas with a real Danish family; this was one the things I was most excited about before coming here!

My visiting family and me celebrating the holidays together

To top off the holiday season, Denmark has gotten a large amount of snow over this past week! It’s made everything look so pretty and festive but since I had to leave my winter coat at home, I’m glad I won’t be here much longer since the snow is here to stay until at least March! It’s a perfect opportunity to stay inside and be hyggeligt though with hot chocolate and blankets!

My town covered in snow

Hard to believe my semester here is over in less than a week! A blog post summing up and reflecting my experiences here and being abroad in general is soon to come as well as catching up on the past few weeks. For now, I have a ten page paper to write, a final to study for, a friend from Bryn Mawr to host and show around Copenhagen, last minute things to do in Denmark and people to see, getting my last hours in at my work study job in the architecture studio, and packing/cleaning to do before heading back to the U.S so it will be a very busy last week!

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About Amanda Beardall

I am a senior psychology major (minoring in child and family studies and environmental studies) from Portland, Oregon. I am involved with the Civic Engagement Office, Art Club, admissions, dorm leadership, and teaching art classes at a local elementary school. I studied abroad in Denmark, did an internship in Indonesia, and took a 360 course cluster that traveled to Ghana.

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