Like so many other aspects of life in Denmark, gift giving in the holiday season comes with dozens of unwritten rules and unspoken expectations.
Should you give a gift to your boss? What about your colleagues? Will you and your Danish friends exchange gifts? And why does almost every store in Denmark ask if you want a “gift sticker” when you buy something?
Here are a few basic tips about gift giving in Denmark.
Gift giving isn’t the most important thing
First of all, it’s important to emphasize that gift giving is not the most important thing about the holiday season in Denmark. Food is the most important thing, from the roast pork to the caramelised potatoes to the shredded red cabbage to the buttery Christmas cookies.
Alcohol is probably the second-most important.
And neither one is any good without the hygge of being together with your family at Christmas dinner, or your colleagues at the work Christmas lunch, or your football friends at your team holiday party.
Gift giving runs a distant fourth, so don’t get too worried about not choosing the perfect gift. That’s what the “gift sticker” is for – it means the recipient will be able to take your carefully-chosen gift back to the store and exchange it for something they’d like better.
I get a lot of questions from the internationals who follow my blog and podcast about gifts from Denmark they can send or bring to friends back home.
Here are a few of my favorite gifts from Denmark that show Danish craftsmanship and Danish style. If you’re ordering from abroad, you’ll probably notice that Danish style comes with Danish prices, which can be hefty. I’ve tried to choose medium-priced, high-quality items.
I should make clear that (regrettably) I’m not getting paid by any of these companies to promote them. I’m just a fan.
Danes are world champions at kitchenware
The Danes do kitchenware very well. In particular, I like the colourful cotton aprons, oven mitts, and dishtowels from H. Skjalm P in Copenhagen, and have given matching aprons and mitts to both men and women.
I also like the kitchenware from the Danish brand Eva Solo, which I think is attractively designed and reasonably priced.
“When I first moved to Copenhagen from New York City, more than a decade ago, Danes used to ask me why I wanted to come to a little place like Denmark after living in glamorous Manhattan,”, writes Kay Xander Mellish in a new article for Berlingske.dk (in Danish) and The Copenhagen Book (in English).
“Nobody asks that any more. In the time since I’ve been here, Copenhagen has increased its confidence while New York City as a cultural capital seems to have lost its mojo.”
Most Danes practice a “four wheels” type of Christianity, writes Kay Xander Mellish in a new article for The International, a Danish monthly aimed at expats. Religion in Denmark is mostly restricted to life ceremonies that involve a baby carriage (baptism), a wedding carriage, or a hearse.
“Throw in Christmas Eve, when Danish churches can get so packed that I’ve seen people push each other out of the way for seats,” Kay writes. “And then add the teenage celebration of confirmation, which is what my family is about to undertake.”
Coming of age ritual
Kay writes: “Many cultures have a ritual in which boys become men and girls become women, whether it’s the Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah for Jews, the Quinceanera in Latin America, or the warrior ceremony among the Masai. In Denmark, this ritual is Confirmation, or for the non-religious, Nonfirmation.
“For the teenagers, the best part of the confirmation is the flow of money in their direction. Their parents pick up the tab for new formal clothes – for Danish boys, it’s often their first business suit, and girls are allowed to shop in the expensive dress section on Zalandos – and for a fancy party after the ceremony, at which godparents and aunties and family friends attend bearing gifts, often cash gifts.
“It’s like getting married, except there’s no groom,” says my 14-year-old daughter, who is looking forward to being confirmed.
When I was working on the 5th anniversary podcast last week, I realized I’d had podcasts on spring in Denmark, summer in Denmark, winter in Denmark, but nothing on autumn in Denmark.
And that’s too bad, because early fall can be one of Denmark’s prettiest seasons.
Autumn in Denmark actually starts in mid-August, when the kids go back to school. Danish kids have a very short holiday – usually only about 6 weeks. By late August, you can definitely feel a little fall crispness in the air. By September the leaves start to turn color, and by the end of October many of the trees are already bare for the winter.
But what really defines fall in Denmark is the slow fading of the light.
Some newcomers see Copenhagen and think they’ve seen Denmark, writes Kay Xander Mellish in a new article for The International, a Danish monthly aimed at expats.
Kay notes that “if the Copenhagen metropolitan area has about 2 million residents, as suggested by Statistics Denmark, then there 3.7 million people in Denmark who do not live in Copenhagen, and not all of them are like the lonely rural studs on the TV2 reality series Farmers Seeking Love.”
Focusing on Copenhagen to the exclusion of the rest of the country isn’t only something foreigners do, Kay writes.
“I recently edited a major Danish organization’s promotional text called Bicycling in Denmark. It went into great detail about Copenhagen shared bikes and Copenhagen bicycle highways and how many sick days Copenhagen residents had saved themselves with their fondness for cycling.
“Could a person also bicycle around Haderslev or Lolland or even Aalborg? Nobody seemed to have looked into that.”
This is a transcript of the “How to Live in Denmark” fifth anniversary podcast posted on August 31, 2018.
This is a special episode, because this is the fifth anniversary of the How to Live in Denmark podcast. Hard to believe, I know, but this podcast began in the summer of 2013. At the time I’m recording this, it is near the end of Summer 2018. We’ve had more than 80 episodes and around a million streams and downloads. Most importantly, I’ve received a lot of messages from people like you saying that the podcast and the books that have come out of the podcast have been really helpful for you in adjusting to Denmark. I’m so happy to hear that.
For me, one of the best things to come out of the podcast is that I’ve gotten to see so much of Denmark. As some of you know, I work as a keynote speaker, booked by organizations and schools and companies around Denmark. So over the past 5 years that’s helped me get out of Copenhagen and get out of the mindset that Copenhagen equals Denmark, which I think a lot of people suffer from.
To celebrate the fifth anniversary of the “How to Live in Denmark Podcast” – which launched in summer 2013 and has since racked up more than a million downloads – I wanted something special and memorable.
I had long been a fan of Danish cartoonist Claus Deleuran’s 1992 image, “Danes, Danish, More Danish”, done for an exhibit at the Nikolaj Kunsthal, but had always been frustrated that it only seems to exist online small, low-res versions.
I thought it would be fun to recreate it – and as long as I was redrawing it – to reflect the Denmark of today.
Although I have drawn cartoons in the past, this particular image is not drawn by me. I commissioned Polish graphic artist Karolina Kara to help me to create it, explaining to her exactly how I wanted each of the characters to appear.
I also gave her photos to work with, such as a picture of the trademark “Copenhagen bench” the beer drinkers are sitting on in the foreground to the right.
Foreigners in the Danish workplace tend to be clustered at the very top of companies – several of Denmark’s largest firms have Dutch or Norwegian CEOs – or at the very bottom, in entry-level service positions.
Even skilled workers like engineers and nurses are more likely to be found in hands-on functional roles than in middle or upper management. Berlingske Tidende, one of the country’s major newspapers, publishes a list of the Top 100 upcoming business talents every year, and at least 90 of them are ethnic Danes.
Some companies like to talk a lot about their open-mindedness, but in practice believe that only Danes are really capable of managing other Danes. Language certainly plays a role, and foreigners are also seen as unable to understand the Danish national psychology and secrets of employee motivation.