January, February, and March are some of the dreariest months in Denmark – it’s dark, with no Christmas lights to pep it up – and many people are dealing with a heavy load of year-end debt from travelling, parties, dining out, and gifts.
Along with religion, personal finances (privatøkonomi, which many Danes insist on directly translating to “my private economy”) is a topic that is rarely discussed in Denmark. But the country has one of the highest rates of household debt in the world.
And once you get into debt in Denmark, it can be very difficult to get out.
As this new year and decade begins, let’s take a moment to think about all the people for whom this will be their very first year, all the Emmas and Emils and Aasmas and Szymons whose birthdate will be 2020.
If trends continue, there will be more than 61,000 newborn Danes joining us this year. And according to Denmark’s Statistik, 22% of children born here will have a mother who is not ethnic Danish.
That’s something I know a little about, being a non-Danish mother myself.
As Christmas Eve approaches, we’re nearing those few magical hours that happen only once a year. Not just when the 24/7 Netto briefly closes…not just when the buses stop running, and the electrical grid hops because everyone turns on their ovens at once….but those precious moments when Danish churches are actually full.
Really full. Needing crowd-control full. Pushing each other out of the way full. Very Christian, loving, I-have-saved-these-seats-for-my-extended-family-and-you-will-just-have-to-sit-somewhere-else full.
A couple of weeks before, there was plenty of room at the inn.
It’s unusual for us Americans to miss a business opportunity – it feels a little unnatural, to be honest – but for some reason, I have never before written about hygge.
Hygge is big business. Hygge housewares catalogues offer candles, soft blankets, earthenware coffee mugs, and warm socks that will help you, too, experience hygge. Hygge tours are offered in major Danish cities.
And authors who do write about hygge are richly rewarded. They’re interviewed by glossy magazines, their books are arranged in elaborate piles in the shops at Copenhagen airport, and they speak to adoring audiences in London, Paris, and Rome. Meanwhile, my next exciting engagement is at Holsterbro Gymnasium. (I really am excited, kids – see you there!)
Selling hygge has become an industry. But hygge, like love, is not really something you can buy.
Whenever the holiday season approaches, I always think about the time I brought home our Christmas tree on a bicycle.
It was a grey day in late November – we Americans like to start our Christmas decorating early – and my young daughter dearly wanted a tree for our Copenhagen apartment.
So we walked through the snow to the parking lot of a nearby Netto, where a cheerful fellow from Jutland was waiting with a good selection of sweet-smelling pines.
Being a very small girl, my daughter wanted a very big tree. The man spied our shopper bike and looked a little doubtful, but he went ahead and wrapped up one of the largest trees in white plastic netting, and helped us lift it onto the bike.
The trunk was on the baggage carrier in the back, and the top of the tree over the handlebars and into the basket. We walked the bike home that way, with my daughter holding the big pine tree at its center over the seat, while I steered the bike in the right direction.
Julefrokost season is just around the corner, which means that within the next two months you are likely to be seated at a long, thin table (or unwieldy round table) for many hours next to someone you may or may not have something in common with.
Danes have grown up with this structure, which means they know how to carefully balance a bit of light chatter with a person to their left, a bit more with the person to their right, and perhaps a bit of shouting across the table, over the serving dishes and the hostesses’ favorite centerpiece.
But it can be difficult for newcomers, who are used to a more fluid party structure where people are constantly on the move, and where the bore you are stuck with can be quickly discarded in favor of an old friend you actually like, or someone across the room who might be more entertaining or attractive.
This isn’t allowed in Denmark, where you are committed to one chair and one chair only until the ris allemande comes out.
When I moved from the US to Denmark, I didn’t expect the American holidays to follow me.
But American-style Halloween is everywhere now, having transformed the ancient and dignified Danish allehelgensaften to a full explosion of plastic and candy.
If Wikipedia can be trusted, the American version of Halloween only took off in Denmark in 2000, when Fætter BR began to sell the very first of the polyester princess costumes, zombie makeup sets, and plastic pumpkin-shaped candy baskets that now overwhelm stores beginning in late September.
The production of real pumpkins has soared too, with nearly a million sold every year in Denmark.
My guess is that American-style Halloween has become so popular not just because it references a deep pagan tradition, but because getting ready for it gives the kids something to do during fall vacation.
It is also a convenient three or four months before it’s time to dress up again for Fastelavn.
“Is there politeness in Denmark?”
That was the question I was recently invited on a national TV show to discuss.
The implication was that I was supposed to say that Danes were not at all polite, because effusive praise and cheerful agreement make for a rather dull TV show.
But Danes are not impolite. They have their own version of courteous behaviour, which is based on reinforcing aspects of their culture that they care about.
The relaxed approach to nudity in Denmark can be a surprise for many newcomers.
It’s something they’re often confronted with at the local swimming hall, where a very large and strong attendant insists that they take off their entire swimsuit and shower thoroughly before going into the pool.
Stripping off in front of strangers is new for a lot of internationals, and some try to place it a larger context of Danish morality.
It hasn’t been entirely forgotten that Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize pornography in 1967. Some people still think of Denmark as a place where there is easy sex available and a generous display of naked boobs and butts.
If you’re newly arrived in Denmark, making Danish friends is not easy – in fact, surveys show that one of the main reasons internationals end up leaving is the difficulty of building a network.
The irony is that Danes are actually very good at friendship. Their friendships are strong, reliable, and deep-rooted. Friends can count on each other.
But because Danes take friendships so seriously, they like to keep their number of friendships under control. They don’t want to take on more friends than they can keep their deep commitment to.
The statement “I just don’t have room for any more friends” sounds perfectly sensible to Danes, and utterly stunning to foreigners.
Danes from other parts of Denmark
When internationals ask me how they can make Danish friends, I have one primary piece of advice.