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During the dark days leading up to winter solstice, it becomes imperative to try to mitigate the growing darkness with light. In the old days, people believed that if we put up lights, we would convince the sun to come back to life. This is of course especially true in the deep North where the winter feels eternal, cold and dark. “Jul” is our name for the midwinter feast which is, at least today, one of the main festivals, if not the most important one of the year. Interestingly enough, the word “Jól” or Jul is actually plural, which jul even today could be considered, it’s a period of festivities, not just one day. 

Denmark, which is where I’m from, has been a Christian country since Harald Blåtand “baptized” the danes in the 10th century, so by now the customs have been thoroughly mixed, the Pagan with the Christian. But they are actually two different festivities which the church decided should fall at the same time of the year. What I’m going to share with you today, is what we do in my family (mainly what my mother and I used to do and what I now try to do with my own little family, although many of the customs are the same for my entire family). Most of these things are widely celebrated but some are probably unique.

The guiding star and the birds following it.

The single most important thing in my family’s Jul celebration is the juletræ, the christmas tree, which symbolises the tree of life. It is brought into the house just before Christmas Eve, generally on the 23rd of December and decorated in a special order which is very important:

On top goes the star, the highest and most distant element of it all, of course it also symbolises the star of Bethlehem which guided the three wise men to the birth of Jesus Christ. More than anything, stars mean guidance, during millenia stars were one of the only and most secure ways of finding your way, especially when at sea. So for me, its meaning is tremendous. A bit lower down, we find angels, bells, more stars and birds, all that move in the heavens, both figuratively and literally. Around the middle of the tree, we start seeing the human things, such as other animals, hearts and baskets. And at the bottom, the nisser (I’ll get back to the meaning of this), the excess or luxury, the underworld and the material things. Some things are present across “platforms”, for example balls, food, and the flags that particularly became popular on Danish trees during the second world war. For us, our flag means a lot more than patriotism or nationalism, it’s a celebratory symbol, used for birthdays, anniversaries and similar. One peculiarity in the decoration of the tree are the braided hearts which contain no glue but still can be very elaborate.


Following old tradition, we further decorate with edibles in the baskets, hearts and kræmmerhus (photo), some knallerter that are popped on New Year’s Eve where it’s also important to watch the tree, and then real candles that burn down in around 1,5 hours. When they’re about half an hour from the end, we bet on which one will last the longest and the winner gets a wish. But the burning down means so much more than that, it’s like life – that we’re not the masters of the time we get and darkness is a part of life, just like light is. Another related tradition is that everyone goes out of the room and into a dark room to wait for one person (generally the host/decorator) to light the candles and invite everyone back in. This is an emotional effect unlike any other, the true Christmas miracle.

Before electrical lights, everybody would have put candles on their trees, I still find it much more captivating and meditative.

Everywhere in the world where Christmas or similar festivals are celebrated (such as Diwali or Eid), food plays a huge role, either because of symbolism but mostly because the idea is to have all the best you can find. Hence, it differs widely from one culture and place to another. In Denmark, we have a specific cut of pork (in the old days, a pig would be kept all year and slaughtered just before Christmas), duck, or goose, all of which were expensive and festive, accompanied by potatoes, sauce and red cabbage. The dessert has a special meaning and is probably only found in Denmark, even though the name is french; Ris à la Mande. It’s made from “risengrød”, said to be the favourite of the “nisse”, mixed with almonds, whipped cream and vanilla and served with cherry sauce. Vanilla, rice, and almonds were of course expensive and difficult to get by in Denmark at the time the tradition started, as well as our marcipan and our christmas cookies with many expensive spices. A whole almond is put in the bowl and mixed well and the person who gets it while eating, gets a present, traditionally a pig made of marzipan but nowadays it could just be a book, a bottle of liquor or similar. 

Something unique to Denmark (also found in the other Scandinavian countries) is the concept of the Nisse, and specifically the Julenisse, the origins of which are found in folklore. Originally a somewhat malevolent and teasing little gnome-like man, he’s turned into a symbol of Christmas. He should be fed risengrød, otherwise he’ll get angry and take revenge on the family…


“According to tradition, the nisse lives in the houses and barns of the farmstead, and secretly acts as their guardian. If treated well, they protect the family and animals from evil and misfortune, and may also aid the chores and farm work. However, they are known to be short tempered, especially when offended. Once insulted, they will usually play tricks, steal items and even maim or kill livestock.” (Source: Wikipedia)

An old Christmas card from 1885 depicting a Nisse
An old Christmas card from 1885 depicting a Nisse. (Source: Wikimedia commons)
An alternative adventskrans (advent wreath) with its four candles.

Another essential element of Jul is the music, singing “julesange” and “salmer”, carols and hymns. Some are more or less secular while others are clearly Christian in idea. They are sung by young and old at different events, in church, at schools, at home, and especially around the tree. Instead of just looking at the tree, we dance around it while singing. Sometimes, there aren’t enough people to dance and we join with dolls and teddy bears so the family seems bigger. Of course, many people also go to Christmas concerts of all genres. 

Perhaps even more important than the night itself (we celebrate on Christmas Eve), are the preparations for it, baking, decorating, singing, anticipating, and then the “Julekalender” and “Adventskrans”. Adventskrans is basically an advent wreath with 4 candles, one for each Sunday before Christmas, while Julekalender and its derivatives is a more wide phenomenon. We have the simple advent calendar with 24 little doors with a picture behind them or chocolates, the “pakkekalender” which has 24 little gifts or the “kalenderlys” which is a candle counting down to 24 where we burn down a number each day until the big day. And then, quite unique to Denmark, we have the television series with one episode for each day of December of which there are many and varied versions, both for adults and kids, where for some reason Christmas is in peril and we need to save it. 

These are the outlines of Jul as I’ve known it from my own childhood, however, my own son will live this festival differently with a blend of traditions from here and there. For example, this year we’ve incorporated the Tió (the Catalan Christmas log) on his petition, although I only have a vague idea of what exactly is done. We live and learn and traditions transform and merge. May this midwinter solstice bring you hope and light, no matter what religion you adhere to or whether you’re spending it where you’ve always lived or far away in a new home! 

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