Christmas in Denmark
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
A Brief History
As with all the Scandinavian countries, pre-Christian era Danes practiced Norse paganism. The Old Nordic religion (asatro), was polytheistic, entailing a belief in various gods and goddesses. Though the emphasis on which deities were worshiped varied by region, Thor and Odin were the most widespread.
During the Viking Age which lasted from 800 to 1050 AD, most of Europe had been Christianized. But the Vikings were still content to worship their own gods and goddesses. Thus, German missionaries who came to Denmark in the 8th and 9th century had a hard time converting the Danes.
However, Denmark was the first of the Scandinavian countries to be Christianized. Harald Bluetooth, ruler of Denmark (c. 958-c. 986), introduced Christianity to the nation. The transition to Christianity is marked by King Bluetooth’s rune stone at Jelling, which dates to around 965. The stone displays an inscription which declares that Harald made the Danes Christian. But this change did not take place overnight. Unlike most countries where the people become Christianized and then the king, Denmark was the opposite. It took the people time to warm up to the new religion. For a very long time, Danes were both Christian and pagan. Trade was an important part of Viking life. Since most of Europe was Christian, many towns required tradesmen to be Christian in order to do business. As Vikings had no problem with having many gods, White Christ, was just another one to add to their belief system. Most importantly, being Christian allowed them to expand their trade options.
Written sources indicate that baptism of the Vikings was a priority for the Christian missionaries. If they were baptized, they were precluded from participating in the pagan cult. Besides monetary gain from more trade venues, another impetus to being baptized was that people received a set of fine white clothes. Instead of being baptized, some Vikings would agree to be marked with the sign of the cross (primsigned). This option was often chosen by those not ready to make such a drastic change in their lives, but still desiring to expand their trade options.
Ultimately, as Christianity took hold in people’s hearts, old pagan rituals had to be expunged. It was no longer acceptable to place newborn children outside to die. Burial practices changed, as well as religious rites such as animal and human sacrifice.
Despite being a postmodern country, Danes love Christmas and begin celebrations on December 1st. Advent wreaths and calendars are a very important part of Danish Christmas traditions. Most families have more than one type of calendar. The Advent wreath consists of four white candles which are lit each Sunday leading up to Christmas Eve. Traditionally the wreath is made of spruce twigs, decorated with red berries and spruce cones, and red ribbons for attaching the wreath to the ceiling.
Another Danish tradition is the calendar candle. This white candle has 24 markings on it. The candle is lit each morning at the breakfast table and a child blows it out before it burns down into the next day’s marking. All Danish children get one or more Advent calendars, also called Christmas calendars. Some children even get a presents calendar. This kind of Advent calendar is often made out of paper bags attached to a string or twine attached to the wall. Each of the 24 bags contains a gift and is numbered for each of the days of Advent.
Each evening there is a 24 episode new Christmas special broadcast on both of the major TV channels. One show is for children and the other for adults. As in all of the Scandinavian countries, there is a tradition in Denmark of watching a Disney Christmas special on TV. Disney’s Christmas Show: From All of Us to All of You, or Disneys Juleshow: Fra alle os til alle jer in Danish. The show has been aired in Scandinavia every year since 1959 and is a holiday classic. As much as 40-50% of Scandinavians watch each year. In Denmark it airs at 4 pm every Christmas Eve.
Another tradition that is popular in all of Scandinavia is to observance of St. Lucia. St. Lucia takes place on December 13th and celebrates the Catholic Saint of Light. Girls wear white dresses, with a red sash and walk I processionals, singing in schools and at hospitals. The lead girl wears a crown of candles on her head.
Denmark, the country that invented the postal system also originated Christmas seals. Many countries now partake in the tradition, which raises money for the poor through the sale of seals (like stamps) affixed to Christmas cards and letters.
Although most Danes are not religious, many do attend Christmas Eve services to sing Christmas carols. The Christmas tree is decorated at some point by Christmas Eve, but varies by family.
Christmas dinner is traditionally served at 6 pm. Most Danes eat roast duck with prunes, boiled and sweet potatoes, red cabbage, beets and cranberry jam. Others eat roast goose or pork instead. The desert is called risalamande which is cold rice pudding with whipped cream, sugar, vanilla and peeled chopped almonds. According to tradition, one whole almond is hidden in the bowl and the finder gets a present.
After dinner, many Danish families dance around the Christmas tree while singing carols. Then, it’s time to open presents. In Denmark, presents are brought by the 'Julemanden' (which means 'Christmas Man' or 'Yule Man'). He looks very much like Santa Claus and also travels with a sleigh and reindeer. He lives in Greenland, likes to eat rice pudding and is helped by 'nisser' which are similar to elves. In Danish Merry Christmas is 'Glædelig Jul.'
Although 75% of Danes self-identify as Christian (63% Lutheran), only 2% of the population attend church. About 24% of the population is agnostic or atheist. However, many Danes are increasingly open to spiritual things.
Pray for the Holy Spirit to bring revival to the Lutheran Church where many have become disillusioned.
Pray for biblical thinking to replace the secular, postmodern worldview prevalent among the youth.
Pray for financial support for full-time pastors and teachers to share the truths of the Bible.