It took me a while to write this post, because I didn’t feel I should write about Christmas until after it had actually happened. Christmas is a bit of a strange holiday in that sense–the anticipation starting the day after Thanksgiving and heightening madly throughout the month of December until the final wrapping-paper-rapture of Christmas morning.
At least that’s how Americans celebrate Christmas.
I’d say there’s a bit of a different feel here in Denmark.
It would seem that in Denmark there’s an effort to make Christmas into a month-long “December Holiday”. This is done quite purposefully with the use of advent wreaths, advent calendars, calendar gifts, and calendar shows. Since I am not an expert on Danish Christmas (yet), I will probably get some things wrong here, but my Danish friends can feel free to laugh at my ignorance, and can correct me when they see me :).
Per capita Danes use way more candles than any other people. It’s a huge part of “hygge” (more on hygge later, but if you haven’t heard of it, it’s the Danish concept of “cozy” that is currently taking the world by storm). In Denmark I have seen candles routinely used inside the school and the preschool/daycare in order to create a hygge atmosphere.
During December a special wreath is created with four large candles–one to be lit each Sunday in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. The wreaths are often hung from the ceiling with red ribbon.
To the right and below is my kids’ school’s Advent Wreath.
Yes this is in the school, yes those are real candles, yes they are actually lit, and yes they are suspended from the ceiling. Awesome.
Advent Calendars are hugely popular here. Advent calendars of various types are quite common in the U.S. as well, but in Denmark there is a specific, hugely popular kind that looks like this:
Cardboard with little perforated doors that can be opened, one for each day leading up to Christmas. Behind the door is a small molded chocolate in varying holiday-themed shapes. A very thoughtful and kind lady at church gave each of my kids one, and they were much appreciated. Surprisingly, my children even held off and ate each chocolate one at a time on the appropriate day–just when I’ve resolved myself to the seeming reality that my offspring have no capabilities of self-restraint or delayed gratification, they go and do something like this. 🙂
Another time hallowed tradition here are the “calendar shows”. I am no expert on these shows, mind you. We haven’t actually figured out how to watch local television here and have thus far been relying entirely on Netflix, so I am going to have to sheepishly admit that I never watched an actual entire episode–besides which our Danish is not yet to the point where we would understand a whole of it, anyway. Even so, based on all the references to these shows popping up everywhere, they are clearly a major part of Danish Christmas Season. My understanding is that at least a couple of the major TV networks do special series with 24 episodes, one for each day starting December 1st and ending on the 24th. The Danish government sponsors one of the series, and I believe it is this one that features “Nisser,” (Danish elves)–or maybe they all feature elves, I really don’t know. From the part of the one old episode that I watched, I know that adults in elf costumes are involved, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. Reruns from previous years are also re-broadcast, and most people seem to be familiar with all the major characters and story lines: “Oh that crazy elf that’s fat from eating so much Risengrød!” (Risengrød is a rice pudding that the Nisser love and the Danes leave out for them to enjoy, see below).
Many children hang a stocking beside their door, and each night of December, a small gift is delivered into the stocking. I’m not sure if it’s Juleman (ChristmasMan a.k.a. Santa) or Nisser that are delivering these–note to self to check up on this factoid.
The tradition of the Danish Nisser today is descended from the tales of the farm elves from hundreds of years ago that would treat you bad or good, depending on how you treated them. So it is a natural evolution (and consistent with Santa Claus mythology) for parents/Nisser to use these calendar gifts as child-bribery-motivation tools. If the kids are particularly good one day, the Nisser will deliver a particularly nice toy. If the child is naughty, they will receive a nominal small gift, like perhaps a piece of candy. I asked one parent if her child was upset when he received an extra small gift, and she said, “Yes, he’s sad, but he understands.” Consequences, hmmm.
Nisse on the Shelf
Which brings me to the Elf on the Shelf tradition that has spread far and wide in the
U.S. in recent years. The Elf on the Shelf, whose modern incarnation appeared on the scene about 10 years ago, watches children to observe their behavior during the day, and then flies back to the North Pole each night to report back to Santa. Each morning he reappears in a new position around the house–the re-positioning serving as evidence that he must have magically left during the night. Children are warned not to touch the Elf on the Shelf, lest he should lose his magic.
And like any good trend, criticism has arisen in like fashion–mostly parents pointing out that it’s creepy to have someone watching your kids all day and then reporting their behavior to a judgy man.
Grandma sent us an Elf on the Shelf a few years back, and I was excited to see what all the fuss was about. Turns out the kids really did love having the elf visit, and it was a fun addition to our holiday traditions.
He’s not really that creepy, is he?
Really though, although somehow strangely reminiscent, (which is why it was brought to mind), the Elf on the Shelf is not anywhere near as creepy as this ventriloquist doll that my mom kept on the top of our toy shelf in our play room all the years I was growing up:
Seriously, though, why is this a thing?
It’s okay. We all have our scars.
Back to Elf on the Shelf. In spite of the possible creepiness factor of being watched, kids in the U.S. have really taken to this new tradition. “What happens if I touch an elf?” has become a top google search. 911 famously reported a call from a panicked little girl who had accidentally knocked over the family elf.
Parents have joined in on the fun. Entire websites are devoted to chronicling and sharing how you, too, can become a master elf-stager. Elves involved in elaborate snowball fights using mini marshmallows, elves in epic battle with pre-historic animals, elves participating in gunny sack races or held hostage by rogue army men.
It just so happens that I have heard of similar elf behavior happening here in DK. One mom’s kindergarten has a resident nisse (elf), that goes home with a different child each day. This mom, in a manner that would make any devoted American-mom-Elf-on the Shelf-stager proud, created various scenes of mischief for the nisse to participate in and bring a smile to her little boy’s face. Truly our cultures must not be so different!
A key difference between Danish Nisser and American Elves? Cuteness. My six year old, Arabelle, came home and told me that the Danish elves she’d seen at school looked “weird,” and she confided in me that she was a bit scared of them. A teacher told me that Danes make fun of America’s version of elves and say that Hollywood has made them Disney-ized. The word Nisse can actually also be translated as “gnome”.
Months ago when I was putting together our few boxes and suitcases that we would be bringing here to Denmark with us, I neglected to pack our Elf on the Shelf. Possibly it would have been worth bringing, especially had I known that one of my children would be “scared” of the Danish nisser. Had I brought “our” elf, the kids could have enjoyed the familiarity and feeling of consistency: Look kids, even though we’re in Denmark, our elf was able to find us–must be magic! But no, the elf is somewhere in the disorganized boxes of Christmas decorations wedged in the back of our basement.
And so it was that a few weeks ago I set out to find a replacement elf. The elves I found in the stores pretty much all looked like this:
I feared that Arabelle would not like it, or worse be afraid of it–thus perpetuating another trauma like unto the ventriloquist dummy trauma of my youth. She is a great believer in Santa and elves (As she is six years old, I assume this may be her last year for such amusements…I admit, it makes me a little sad), and of all four of my kids, the elf is the most important to her. Unable to find an appropriate replacement in the retail stores, I began scouring the local second hand shops in the hopes of finding the perfect elf. When I saw this one, I had a feeling my daughter would approve.
This little guy appeared one morning sitting on the windowsill, and Arabelle adored him immediately. As far as I know, this little guy is 100% Danish–our perfect Nisse on the Shelf!
And so it was that our Nisse, dubbed “Little Elf,” watched over us (in an un-creepy way) for the month of December, watching as we enjoyed new Danish Christmas traditions, standard American ones, and even ones that can only be described as uniquely “ours”.