The Danish Christmas season commences on the first Sunday of Advent which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. Some years the first week of Advent falls in late November which makes for an early start to the holidays. But it isn’t unusual for some Danes to start their preparations in late August when a special pickled squash is bottled and set aside for December.
In early autumn orders are placed with local farmers for a freshly slaughtered goose or spiced rolled pork to be picked up on Christmas Eve morning. Other Danes get a head-start on their Christmas baking in the weeks leading up to Advent in early November, especially the Danish specialties that can be stored for several weeks ahead of time.
On the first Sunday of Advent a centrepiece is created for the table with dried berries, evergreen branches and ribbons. Four candles are placed in the middle of the display. One candle is lit the first Sunday, two the second, until all four are burning on the last Sunday before Christmas. Advent is also a time to meet with friends as the Christmas holidays themselves are usually reserved for family reunions. A selection of Danish cakes are presented to guests invited for the four Advent afternoons and the most popular treats are puffed apple dumplings sprinkled with icing sugar and served with a selection of homemade jams. There is always a tray of pepper nut cookies and a braided pastry called Klejner. The proud host or hostess will also offer guests a slice or two of St. Thomas Cake which is flavoured with cinnamon and almond slivers.
A hot mulled wine called gløgg is brewed with raisons and cinnamon sticks and served from a pot on the stove that has been simmering in the kitchen before guests arrive at the door. During December, the aroma of gløgg fills the streets of Denmark as many shopkeepers offer a mug to customers while they shop. Many of the streets in the old towns and cities are narrow and store vendors hang strings of white lights between the buildings. Darkness comes early in the December afternoons and windows throughout the cities – even the busy offices – are filled with candles.
As you wander along the canals and harbours you will also notice that small evergreen trees adorn the masts of the ships tied to the piers in the week leading up to Christmas. It is estimated that sixty percent of the entire Danish population is on the move in the two days before Christmas Eve. Children return to the homes of their parents or grandparents in the smaller towns and villages and country folk visit relatives in the larger cities. Extra trains are added (the preferred mode of travel in Denmark) and the conductors walk the aisles with a sprig of holly in their caps.
Christmas is celebrated on the 24th in Denmark and everything closes down (including most of the trains and buses ) by noon. At three o’clock sharp, afternoon tea is served, again with a variety of cakes and pastries and this is usually when Christmas cards are opened and read to those gathered.
Christmas cards usually contain letters relating the events of the year past and the afternoon reading is a time to catch up with those you haven’t seen for a while. Everything to be served for the meal to follow has been prepared in advance. The pork roast or goose is popped in the oven around four o’clock. As the afternoon winds down the house fills with the flavours of the kitchen and everyone sits down to dinner around seven in the evening. We start with hot rice porridge made with whole milk and served with cinnamon sugar and a dollop of butter on top. The rice porridge is accompanied with a sweet malted beer that contains very little alcohol. The large bowl of porridge is placed in the centre of the table together with small serving bowls to match. Servings are modest and no-one raises a spoon until everyone is served. Before the porridge is scooped into the bowls, the hostess places one almond in the big bowl and stirs it into the porridge. The one who finds the almond gets a special gift. It is always the youngest person at the table who finds the almond in the porridge. How this happens is a mystery but it never fails. Usually the gift is marzipan in the shape of a pig. Then the couples around the table choose a word and whoever is the first to utter the chosen word six months hence, on Mid-Summer’s Eve, is taken out to dinner by their partner.
One bowl of porridge is always reserved for the Christmas elf which is called a nisse. It is bad luck to forget to leave a bowl of porridge for the nisse in the attic or on the doorstep as nisses protect the home throughout the year. After dinner, when plates are cleared, the youngest child will check on the bowl of porridge left for the nisse and is delighted, as always, to discover that the bowl has been licked clean. Another mystery. The main meal is usually roast pork or goose. Although turkey is available in Denmark it has never caught on as a meal for the holidays. The meat is served with baked dried fruit, potatoes and braised red cabbage. When the leisurely dinner is finished (and in Denmark meals are leisurely) and the dishes have been washed it is time to gather around the Christmas tree which has been kept out-of-view in one of the rooms of the house. Each year one member of the household is assigned the privilege of decorating the year’s tree. The door is opened and guests are greeted with the festive tree adorned in twinkling candles. There is always agreement among those gathered that this year’s tree is the most beautiful which makes the year’s decorator blush with pride. Or wine. Gifts are exchanged in a rotating fashion so that everyone has the chance to see what everyone else has received. Gift-giving is modest in the Danish home at Christmas, three or four gifts at most for each person. The real pleasure is all the preparation leading up to the holiday and the company of loved ones. Gift-giving is usually followed by cards, conversation and brandies among the adults. Younger children are finally put to bed and around midnight it isn’t unusual for the table to be laid with a snack (several choices of cut meats, breads, fruit, cheeses, nuts and cakes.)
On Christmas Day, many people enjoy a long walk or attend Christmas Mass followed by- you guessed it- more food. This is the biggest buffet of the year and the meal will last most of the afternoon. Neighbours will come and go during the day and join the feast. Although I miss the tradition of the Danish Christmas I enjoy celebrating two Christmases each year – Danish on the 24th and Canadian on the 25th. And the buffet? That’s moved to the 26th.
Danish Rice Pudding (Dessert)
1/2 a cup short grain rice
3 cups whole milk
seeds from one vanilla bean
1/4 cup chopped almonds
1 ½ cups whipping cream, whipped together with 1 tbs. sugar
cherry sauce, heated
Boil rice with milk, vanilla and almonds. Takes about 45 minutes and be careful to stir the bottom now and then, so it does not burn. Let the porridge cool completely. Mix the cold porridge with the whipped cream and keep it in the fridge. Heat the cherry sauce. Serve in glass dishes.
Pork in Aspic (Recipe from South Jutland, Denmark)
2-3 lbs. pork (ribs with all the meat on or loin)
3 medium onions
2 tbs. salt
2 tbs. sugar
8-10 bay leaves
1 tbs. black pepper corn
two third water & one third white vinegar (see under preparation)
Place the pork, cut in serving portions, in a large pot. Add one third vinegar and two third water, just enough to cover the meat. Add sugar, salt, pepper corn and bay leaves and let come to a boil. Then simmer for 45-60 minutes, or until meat is tender. Don’t remove the fat! Remove meat from liquid and place in a flat container. Dissolve your gelatine powder in cold water or as described on the package. Balance the flavour of your stock with sugar or more vinegar to your taste. Measure your liquid and add the amount of gelatine required. Pour over the meat, cover and refrigerate immediately. When cold the fat will form a film over the meat and you can keep this dish in the fridge for a week. In Denmark it is served with braised red cabbage or pickled red beets and rye bread.
Roasted Christmas Goose
6-8 lbs. Goose (6-8 servings)
1 lb. dried prunes, soaked overnight in orange-juice
4 medium onions ( cut in quarters)
½ lb. of butter
1 litre whipping cream
salt & pepper
Preheat the oven to 350F. Peel and core apples. Cut in cubes and mix with the prunes. Clean the goose outside and inside. Remove the loose fat and save, it will make a great tasting spread. See for instructions at the end of this recipe. Butter the inside and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stuff with the apple and prunes and sew the opening together with kitchen string. Butter the skin and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place either directly in the roasting pan or on a rack in the roasting pan. Add one cup hot water and place in the oven. Baste the goose every twenty minutes to ensure a crispy skin surface. Roast for two and a half hour. Transfer all the juices into a pot and return the goose into the oven for another half hour. Run the juices through a strainer. Add the whipping cream and boil down until half the portion. Thicken with cornstarch and balance with salt and pepper to taste. Now you are ready to dress up# the goose, making paper cuffs for the legs. Place a spruce branch on top. Place the goose on a large serving platter and do the carving at the table. Serve with boiled potatoes, braised red cabbage, which you can buy already made and greens like beans or broccoli or brussels sprouts.
The fat that you removed should be washed and then stored in cold salty water in the fridge overnight. Next day, dry the fat and melt it in a pot together with shredded apples and onions. Remove the pot, just when the onions and apples start turning golden brown and store in the fridge. Use as a spread on your bread together with cheese, salami or shaved ham.
Klejner (Danish cookies)
4 cups flour
1 cup butter
¼ cup cream #
½ cup sugar
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. vanilla extract
Canola oil for deep frying
Mix all ingredients into a dough. Let rest for an hour. Roll into a 1/8 inch. thick sheet. Cut into long 1 inch wide strips. Cut diagonally across the strips to get longish diamonds. Make a longitudinal slash. Pull one end of the diamond through the slash to form a half knot. Deep fry until golden brown and let drain on absorbent paper. Do not forget that when they are golden they are finished.