My wife and I have raised three daughters in three countries and in various parts of the U.S. We’ve spent many holidays on our own, away from friends, family and our native soil. We spent one Christmas in Okinawa snorkeling, with a tiny palm tree drooping with ornaments. We spent another on Bondi Beach in Sydney. We spent many holidays in the UAE, celebrating with new friends, neighbors and colleagues from all over the world.

This has been a great adventure, but when we moved back to the U.S. my daughters wanted to have a “real Christmas” with a big tree, shopping mall Santas and Aunt Teresa’s terrible fruit salad. They wanted to identify with family and tradition. To do this, my wife likes to decorate the house, listen to Christmas carols and watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” with the girls. I like to get sushi and see live music. Both are legitimate, time-honored ways of observing the season.

One of the most poignant ways we’ve reconnected with our past is by exploring some Danish customs from my wife’s side of the family.

In Denmark, like the U.S., Christmas is the biggest celebration of the year. One difference, however, is that December 24 is the big day, not December 25. And they keep celebrating until the 26th. We keep this tradition alive by having a party on Christmas Eve. We invite family and friends over for drinks, music and appetizers. Christmas day we usually spend at home with the kids, opening presents and not doing much of anything. We usually don’t see our extended family on Christmas Day. My wife, Maura likes to go to the gym. I read and drink coffee. The kids play with their new toys.

Before we get deeper into Danish practices, a few words about how they developed. Christmas has been celebrated in Scandinavia for more than 2,000 years. The Danes call it “Jul,” which is an old Nordic word for “feast.” During the Medieval Era, the region was Christianized and the older traditions mixed with the new Catholic ones. Christmas was a time of purification and the annual bath. (We don’t adhere to this in our family – monthly bathing is the rule.) Work was banned. Servants and employees were given cakes or breads. A hot punch called glögg was made; mulled wine with spices, brandy or other spirits. It’s still a popular holiday drink throughout Scandinavia. Exchanging gifts was not typical but, gradually, an old man with a white beard seeped into the Christmas ritual. By the 20th century, Denmark and the rest of the world celebrated in much the same way; presents, decorations, trees, religion, candles, songs, family, food and drinks.

However, they still do a few things their own way. On the first of December, Danes open their Christmas Calendar, which is basically the same as we have in the U.S. You open a window each day and eat the chocolate waiting behind it. One unique feature in Denmark is the Children’s Developing Culture Calendar. The proceeds go to children in the developing world. We took this general idea and decided to dedicate at least some of the Yuletide to the poor and homeless. Each year we try to donate time, money and/or goods to the less fortunate. We’ve shopped for presents for struggling single parents, we’ve worked in community centers with our children, read to underprivileged kids, fed them, handed out presents. This is, hopefully, a better and more concrete lesson for our own children than just tossing a few coins into the Salvation Army bucket.

Like us, the Danes like to decorate the house and trim the Christmas tree. Although they have dusty boxes of tinsel, wreaths and ornaments in the attic, they also like to make new decorations each year. This is an activity for the whole family. My wife gets the supplies and the kids start creating. Except for our teenager, who allegedly has better things to do. I’m not allowed to participate, given my negligible ability with arts and crafts.

One of the most important holiday rituals is making traditional sweets at home. Chocolate, marzipan, almonds, nougat, dried fruit and spirits are the typical ingredients. They go into cakes, cookies, pastry, bars and biscuits. The baking starts two weeks before Christmas. The stores close on the 24th, for several days, so the shopping needs to be done early. The sweets are made at home and the whole family takes part. Two of the most popular treats are vanilla wreaths (also called butter cookies), made with sugar, almond, butter and vanilla. We also make klejner, little twisted cakes cooked in oil or fat and dusted with powdered sugar.

In our family, baking klejner (pronounced kly-nah) is the most important part of Christmas. The kids love to help and, though it takes a lot of time and hard work, the labor is worth it. The word comes from klen, which is Swedish for slender, but the pastry originated in Germany. You can find klejner throughout Europe under various names, such as klenät, klena and, weirdly, fattigmann.

My mother-in-law learned how to make klejner from her mother, who was born in Denmark and then she taught my wife. My wife eventually taught our daughters how to make the pastry and they do it together every year. This is a great way for kids and parents to spend time together and to make something with their own hands – nothing store-bought, made on an assembly line or crammed with preservatives.

In Scandinavia there’s a Christmas game involving klejner. Two people play and a crowd gathers to watch. Klejner are tied to a long string and hung in a doorway. One player tries to grab a pastry with his or her mouth while the other player pulls the string up and down to make it difficult. My wife never played this game when she was growing up, but she would spend the holidays baking klejner, eating them, offering them to family and friends. This helped create the feeling, so important in Danish culture, of hygge (hyu-gah) – warmth, coziness, good feeling and simple pleasures.

Hygge comes in other forms, too. Wrapping gifts. Spending time with your family. Debating how early the kids can wake us up to start opening presents. Each year, I make a special house cocktail for Christmas. Not the traditional glögg, but something that tastes a bit like glögg sounds. Which is fairly awful. We invite friends and family over, relax and try the concoction. It’s not always good, but everyone appreciates the effort. We enjoy the warmth of good company, a roaring fire (well, furnace) and a full belly. That’s hygge.


Andrew Madigan is a freelance writer.His first novel "Khawala's Wall" is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and a few very hard to find book shops.