Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Danes and Spring: Hot wheat buns and highly-educated drunks

 
It’s spring in Denmark, and spring is by far my favorite season here. The wonderful white Scandinavian sunlight is back after the dark days of the winter, the flowers are coming out on the trees, and everybody’s in a good mood. The outdoor cafés are full of people again – sometimes draped in blankets to keep warm, but outside all the same.

April and May are often the best months for weather in Denmark, along with September. Summers can be rainy. And April is when Tivoli opens in Copenhagen. (Side note: when you see a man in Denmark with his trousers accidentally unzipped, you quietly inform him “Tivoli is open!”)

Tivoli is one of the world’s great non-disappointing tourist attractions – it’s constantly updated, with new shops, new rides, fresh flowers and fresh restaurants. And in the spring, it’s not as crowded as it is in the summer. You can hang out all day, have a picnic, ride the rollercoaster, even hear some bands play.

And you’ll have time to do that, because spring is when the Danes’ public holidays really stack up. There are three public holidays around Easter – Thursday, Friday and the following Monday – and then several other public holidays, like Ascension Day, and the Friday after it. And Whitsunday, and the Monday after it.

Danish fundamentalists love Big Prayer Day

Plus Big Prayer Day, which is in May this year. Big Prayer day is a Danish-only holiday, and there have even been suggestions that it should be eliminated, in order to save money for the government or even introduce a new Muslim holiday to go along with all the Christian ones.

Technically, there’s no reason that Muslims or Buddhists or Jews couldn’t all pray along on Big Prayer Day, but Big Prayer day’s origins are Christian. The day was a compromise. In the olden days, all sorts of guilds were laying down their tools for their own prayer days at inconvenient times, so it was decided to roll all the individual prayer days into one Big Prayer Day.

Big Prayer day has it’s own traditions. For example, you’re supposed to take a walk on Big Prayer day. At one point, it was a walk around the Copenhagen city ramparts, but now it’s just a walk, anywhere. And Big Prayer Day has a special food, known as Hot Wheat Buns. Originally, bakers were closed on Big Prayer Day, so you would get your Wheat Buns the night before and heat them up on the day. Traditions like this are now mostly observed by Danish fundamentalists.

Anyway, when I first came to Denmark, I arrived right before all of these big holidays and I didn’t know anyone and I was living in a hotel and I thought – what do people do with all these holidays?

Now I know. You take a walk, or a bike trip. You go to Tivoli. You go to your Danish summer house. Or, if you’re 14 years old, you get confirmed.

Confirmation: Religious event or consumer event?

Spring is also confirmation season in Denmark. In the Christian religion, confirmation is when you take responsibility as an adult within the church. So thousands of Danish teenagers, having spent the winter learning the names of Old Testament prophets and Jesus’ disciples, are ready for confirmation in the spring.

On each Sunday or public holiday in April or May, Danish churches are filled with up to 40 kids at a time going through confirmation ceremonies – the boys in new suits, the girls in pretty dresses. Now, as I’ve noted, Danes are not particularly religious. You might ask – what’s with the big church service?

The deal is, each confirmation is followed by a party, a big party. Every member of the teenager’s extended family is invited, and all of them are expected to bring money. Gifts of money are part of the confirmation experience, probably one of the best parts, if you ask the teenagers.

Then the day after the ceremony, the kids are allowed to skip school and go shopping to spend all their new cash. This is called ‘Blue Monday’ and it’s an accepted indulgence and a great driver of the Danish economy. Shopping malls order extra clothes and electronics for the wave of teenage shoppers. I’ve even seen some local tourist boards offer Blue Monday package trips for confirmation kids from the countryside.

Of course, the confirmation service also has some advantages for the Danish church: it gets potential worshippers through the door right before they’re 18, which is when they often they decide whether or not to pay church tax. Church tax is one of the few optional taxes in Denmark, but if you don’t pay it you don’t get access to church services: Danish priests often refuse to bless the burials of people who didn’t contribute to the church coffers while they were alive.

Highly educated drunks

As spring fades into summer, another familiar sight appears in the streets of Denmark: slightly older teenagers wearing distinctive canvas white caps. These kids are now officially ‘students’, in the Danish phraseology, which means that they have just finished their secondary education.

The different colors of cap or ribbon on the cap indicate what type of education has been completed: Bordeaux color for an academic gymnasium, royal blue for business school, dark blue for technical school.

Each school of students rents a giant open-back truck and drives around town to every single classmates’ home, singing, screaming, and honking horns. If you’re taking a Saturday afternoon nap, a truck of students driving by will wake you up. The students have a drink at each stop, so by the end of the day they’re pretty much falling off the truck.

In my country, the United States, the liabilities lawyers would be all over this. One drunk kid would fall off the truck, sue the school, and the tradition would be ended forever.

But this is Denmark, and spring traditions live on.

  
Hear the podcast version of this story in the full podcast Spring in Denmark: Hot wheat buns and highly-educated drunks in your browser, or subscribe to the podcast for free on iTunes.


 

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Moving to Denmark

Want to read more? Try the How to Live in Denmark book, available in paperback or eBook editions, and in English, Chinese, and Arabic. If you represent a company or organization, you can also book Kay Xander Mellish to stage a How to Live in Denmark event tailored for you, including the popular How to Live in Denmark Game Show. Kay stages occasional free public events too. Follow our How to Live in Denmark Facebook page to keep informed.

Photo credit: National Archives, Denmark, via Creative Commons

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5 Comments

  • Reply Maxine Jones April 30, 2015 at 8:02 am

    I can hardly believe what I heard on the podcast today. Spring in Denmark. I laughed out loud. I chat with a Danish man who was just explaining today about confirmation parties. (His family is invited to attend one on Saturday.) he also mentioned something you didn’t. He says that people write poems to fit a familiar song about the person being confirmed. Then they all sing these songs. Apparently this will be a very long party. (He isn’t very happy about that.)

    • Reply Kay Xander Mellish April 30, 2015 at 8:10 am

      Ha ha! Yes, he’s right about the songs. Actually, we did a separate podcast about Danes and Singing….

  • Reply Maxine Jones April 30, 2015 at 9:20 am

    Wow. If I’d known how quickly I’d get an answer here, I would have stuck around. I have been in communication with this guy…through a common interest in drawing and the related chat….for two years and have come to understand so much of what you are telling us. Mine has been mainly by “filling in the blanks” and asking questions. We have become good friends. But I’m getting so much insight from your podcasts , laughing out loud often. Thank you. Will be getting the book when I get to my computer.

  • Reply birgitte May 7, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    Sorry to be a pedant, but the trucks are rented by the students, not their school, so the schools could not be sued.

  • Reply Eva Maria February 12, 2016 at 12:07 am

    I love that we don’t have a “sue everything in sight”-policy here in Denmark. And I think that also adds to the feeling of security here in Denmark. If I fall of a “studenter bus” it’s my fault, not the driver’s fault, not the owner, but mine, I could just have been more careful. The same goes for not marking off steep cliffs – fire is hot, cliffs are steep, so exercise reasonable caution.

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