Hygge is a word that you can now read books about! It isn’t easily translated into English but the closest word I can think of is coziness. When we ‘hygger’ (it is a verb too), we light candles, create a cozy atmosphere and enjoy each other’s company. There is nothing like it!
Most Danish families have long-held Christmas traditions and of course my family is no different. My mom usually bakes five or six different kinds of cookies, some of which I now offer on my menu. When we were kids, my sister and I loved to help her bake. The smell that filled the kitchen was so delicious and put us all in the holiday spirit.
Growing up, Little Christmas Eve, December 23rd, was the day my parents brought the Christmas tree inside and we decorated it. We still do this the years we celebrate the holiday with my family in Denmark. Dinner that evening consists of the traditional Danish rice porridge called risengrød. This is a porridge that Danish farmers superstitiously used to bring up to their attics to feed the Christmas elves in hopes that the elves would be good to them throughout the year. The porridge is served with cinnamon sugar and a little pad of butter in the middle. It’s delicious and very filling but later on, there is still room for æbleskiver and gløgg, a spiced drink with almond slivers and raisins that is served hot.
Christmas Eve day is filled with excitement and preparations. If Santa Claus (Julemanden) comes to a home in Denmark, he will often appear in person on Christmas Eve. Strangely my father was never around to see when Santa came to our house… 😉
All the Christmas gifts are put underneath the Christmas tree in the late afternoon, making it a little hard for children to sit through dinner with all those presents on display. Danes – at least the adults – like to sit and savor the food, so a celebratory meal is never quick. When my son was younger, my mom would feel bad that he had to wait, so she would give him one present to open before dinner to which I of course had to protest because my sister and I were never given that advantage! I guess things change when you become a grandparent.
On my family’s Christmas Eve dinner menu is duck, two kinds of potatoes, gravy, red cabbage and a green vegetable (something my sister and I have insisted on as we became adults). Dessert is ris a l’amande which is made from some of the rice porridge we have on little Christmas Eve. This is mixed with vanilla bean, sugar, chopped almonds, whipped cream and a little port wine in the version that the grown-ups eat. The ris a l’amande is served with a warm cherry sauce, not dissimilar from cherry pie filling, but a little less sweet. There will be one whole almond in the porridge and the person who gets the whole almond receives a gift, so whether or not you have room for dessert, you cannot miss the chance to receive the first present of the evening!
After dinner, we walk around the candle-lit Christmas tree, singing hymns and carols. It’s very festive! And then, finally we get to the presents and while they are opened one at the time, coffee, cookies and special candies are served.
It always gets to be a late night, so we take it easy the next morning, Christmas Day. But by late morning, the preparations begin for our big Danish Christmas lunch which is one of my favorites. We will have many different kinds of herring – some my mom prepares herself and those are among the absolute highlights. There may also be a Swedish dish called Janson’s Fristelse (Janson’s Temptation) with potatoes and anchovies. Afterwards a number of warm dishes will be served and we end the meal with a beautiful platter of cheeses. Obviously, this lunch is enjoyed over many hours, too many for a child who is eager to check out his new Christmas presents, so he gets to take breaks in-between courses.
The second day of Christmas, December 26th, is also a holiday. It’s a day to digest, relax and spend time with family and friends. I love Christmas because of its traditions and hygge. I love Christmas because of the time we spend with people we love and the time we have spent finding ways to show them. I love Christmas!