11 weird traditions that only make sense to Danes

Photo: Mikkel Heriba

Nowadays we're so used to being updated constantly. But you'll notice that there are certain occasions and times of the year where time seem to stand still, and we celebrate like it's 1549. If you read on, we'll tell you all about our weird Danish traditions that make perfect sense to us.

1. Jumping into the new year

If you plan to spend New Year's Eve in Denmark, don't be alarmed when you see Danes standing on chairs just before midnight. It's not because we're drunk (though we might be), it's simply an old tradition that we jump into the new year as the clock strikes 12.

And it's vital that we do it too, because it's supposed to bring bad luck for the entire new year if you forget to jump at midnight. (Though you might also say it's not exactly good luck if you end up falling on your face as you try to jump off the chair - not that any of us have ever tried anything so embarrassing...)

2. Hitting the cat out of the barrel at Fastelavn

In February, we celebrate Fastelavn which is a mix of Halloween and carnival. Children dress up in costumes and hit the cat out of the barrel. It's similar to a piñata, though in stead of sweets we traditionally had a black cat inside the barrel. (But don't worry! Nowadays we've switched out the cat for the sweets and simply decorated the barrel with a cut-out version of a black cat).

3. Our special Easter letters

Our Easter letters (or gækkebreve as we call them) are something truly Danish. They are very personal as cut in a variety of patterns. The text itself has to rhyme, and the sender signs the letter by spelling out its name in dots, so the recipient has to guess who send the letter. If the recipient guesses correctly, he will receive a chocolate Easter egg. If he is mistaken, he has to buy the sender one. (Forget the lottery, these letters are high risk, high reward!) 🐣

4. Burning a witch on Saint John's Eve

On June 23rd, we celebrate Midsummer by gathering around a bonfire up and down the country. We sing songs such as Midsommervisen by Holger Drachmann, listen to the live band that usually play at our public events, and treat ourselves to some snacks and drinks. And that all sounds lovely right? So where does the witch burning come into the picture?

Let's just quickly clarify that it's a doll, not a real witch (we're not that crazy! ... anymore). It was a way to ward off witches in the Middle Ages. But let's be honest: burning a witch on Saint John's Eve (Sankt Hans aften) is one of those weird traditions that only make sense to Danes...

5. That one week in June where we all want to be high school graduates

If you find yourself in Denmark during the last week of June, you'll most likely run into a bunch of teenagers wearing our iconic student cap. These teens have just graduated high school, and for the following week the white caps seem to be everywhere you go. There are a lot of different rules of what to write and cut into the caps, and if you stop one of the graduates they're usually more than willing to explain them all to you.

One of the most traditional ways to celebrate ones high school graduation is hard not to miss. During the last weekend in June, the streets are filled with large, decorated trucks in which the graduates stop by each of their classmates' houses for something to eat and drink.

6. J-Dag: The beginning of the Christmas season in Denmark

J-dag (i.e. J-day) is an abbreviation for julebrygsdag (Christmas Brew Day). J-day was introduced by the Danish brewery Tuborg in 1990 to launch that year's Christmas beer and has since become a Danish tradition that more or less kicks off the Christmas season in Denmark.

J-day falls on the first Friday of November every year, and starts at 8:59 PM. Over time, J-day has become a Danish Christmas tradition celebrated in bars and pubs around the country. You can easily join in the festivities, but it might be good to remember that these Christmas beers have a higher percentage of alcohol than regular pilsners. (P.S. If you forget this important piece of information, you're more Danish that you think.)

7. Mortensaften: The evening where we all eat geese

On the 10th of November, we celebrate Saint Martin's Eve (Mortensaften) by treating ourselves to a scrumptious dinner of a roast goose (originally... nowadays roast ducks are more commonly used), potatoes, and gravy.

Why do we do this you might ask? It all has to do with some French bloke (Martin) who hid in a flock of geese to avoid being named bishop. But the geese betrayed him by flying away, and Martin got his revenge by claiming that every family should feast on a goose on Saint Martin's Eve. (He probably could've used some anger management...)

8. Christmas: The highlight of our winter season

Come December, the days are at their shortest and darkest (in mid-December, we only about seven hours of sunshine per day). Thus, the winter celebration has a special place within our culture - even for our Viking ancestors who gathered for the festivities where they ate good food, drank beer and exchanged gifts. (Sounds familiar?)

Did you know that the Danish word for Christmas (Jul) can actually be traced back to our Viking ancestors who celebrated Jól or Yule in the middle of January?

Anyhow, we have a never-ending list of traditions when it comes to the Christmas season, so we'll introduce you to a few of them.

The main event: Christmas Eve

First of all, we celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December (Christmas Eve) with our loved ones where we eat a mouth-watering meal of roast pork and duck, boiled potatoes, red cabbage and gravy. This light snack is followed by a rice pudding topped with cherry sauce, and where the main goal of eating is to get the portion that contain a whole almond (the winner will get a present!). 

After dinner, we'll head in to the living room to dance around the Christmas tree while we sing carols. Once every one has chosen a carol to sing, we unwrap our present. As an added little fun fact that always seem to freak people out: we use candles (yes real ones with flames and everything) on our trees. You might ask how we dare mix fire and trees, but the answer is simple: hygge.

The secret ingredient to most of our Christmas events

Hint: it's food. Because food is a big reason why we're always counting down to Christmas season. After 11 months, we're finally allowed to break out the old family recipes for our baked goods such as brunkager and klejner.

We wander through Christmas markets with a glass of mulled wine (gløgg) and a plate of at least three æbleskiver. (Trust us, you don't want to miss out on æbleskiver!). Furthermore, we attend a range of Christmas lunches with friends, colleagues, and family throughout December, where some of our most iconic and traditional dishes (i.e. smørrebrød and snaps) are the stars of the show.

Other well-known Danish Christmas traditions

Keep in mind that the days in December are rather short, and by Danish standards, darkness equals candles. Now we've already mentioned having candles on our Christmas trees, but we have a few more traditions that (literally) light up our Christmas season. For instance, our advent calendar candle used for counting down the days until Christmas Eve, and celebrating Saint Lucy's Day on December 13 with processions (which you can experience all over the country). 

9. The reason Danes don't want to be single when they turn 25 years old

We do single shaming a bit differently (some might say extreme) in Denmark. If we happen to be single on your 25th birthday, we're dragged into the street by our friends who'll cover us in cinnamon. And we can expect the same treatment if we're still single and unmarried by the time we turn 30, though the cinnamon is then replaced by black pepper.

10. Danish wedding traditions: The way to a happy marriage

Love is all around. And this is particularly true when we attend weddings. Throughout the party, there's a lot of kissing going on - and it's not only between the happy couple. We have a rather whimsical wedding tradition in Denmark that when the groom is out of the reception room, the guests hurry to kiss the bride - and vice versa (the female guests tend to freshen up their lipstick before kissing the groom).

11. Birthday traditions: Happy birthday to me!

Now you might think that when it's your birthday, you're entitled to be the one getting cake, but that's not how we do in Denmark. Whether at school or at work, it's tradition that the birthday child brings sweets or cake. We guess it's a way of sharing the happiness and joy of being the birthday kid. 🎂🎈