We’ve talked on the podcast about what to do if you’re spending your Christmas holiday with family and friends – but what if you’re not? What if you’re an international who is alone in Denmark during the holiday season?
This is a topic that is near to my heart, because it was what happened to me when I first arrived in Denmark. It wasn’t Christmastime, it was spring, when the Danish holidays come one after the other.
I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t speak the language, and back then all the stores were closed on holidays. I had to live off hot dogs from the hot dog wagons. So I know what it’s like.
These days supermarkets are open for at least limited hours during the holidays, but not much else is, particularly on the big three days – December 24, 25, and 26. On December 24, the buses even stop running for a few hours so the drivers can be with their families.
So, if you’re alone for Christmas in Denmark, what do you do?
Plan a project in advance
Well, the first thing to do is prepare in advance. Basically, there is not much going on in Denmark between December 23, which is when the stores close after Christmas shopping, and Jan 2, when the normal work week resumes. That’s about 10 days.
So, it’s good to prepare a project. A big box set is good. I recommend the Danish TV series Matador, which is about a rivalry between two families. Danes will tell you that it totally explains Danish culture and thinking.
Other big projects are good too, like cleaning off your computer, or getting your taxes in order. One of the Danes’ favorite ways to shield their income from taxes is making contributions to a pension fund, and the window closes sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, on the last banking day of the year.
If you have to work during the holiday period
If you’ve got a job, you can work during the week between Christmas and New Years. You might even be forced to – sometimes if you’re the most junior person in the office, you get stuck there during the holidays because everyone else is taking time off.
Sometimes that means you’re overwhelmed, doing everybody’s job at once, and sometimes there’s nothing going on, and you end up just cleaning off your office computer. One thing you should not do is expect an answer from anybody on business questions during this period.
For Danes, holiday time off is kind of a sacred space. It’s a time when you put family first. In one of my How to Work in Denmark presentations I tell a story about a foreign boss who was expecting a big deal to go through before the end of the year, so he asked his Danish workers to “just keep their laptops on” in case they were needed.
That did not go over well. People were furious. For Danes, time off is really time off, particularly around the holidays.
Go for a walk in the forest
If you’re not working, if you’re home alone, get out of the house. Even if it’s cold and grey and soupy outside, you’ll go crazy if you spend the entire holiday season indoors.
Go for a walk in nature, in a park or a forest. You won’t be the only one – you’ll see a lot of Danish families walking through the woods, examining the icicles on the branches, or the winter berries in the snow, or seeing how the forest animals are dealing with the cold. If you have a friend with a dog, take the dog for a walk and enjoy that unique Scandinavian winter light.
Places and things you’ve always wanted to see
You can also go to a local museum – you know, that one you’ve been meaning to get around to, but never quite did, or do a day trip to a tourist town you’ve always wanted to see. You know, if you’re in Esbjerg, go to Ribe. In Copenhagen, go to Køge.
Or – here’s a controversial suggestion – go to church. Denmark has some beautiful churches, and if you’re like me, you rarely get to see the inside of them. For example, Jørn Utzon, the Danish architect who built the Sydney Opera House, also built a church in Copenhagen, and it’s open to everyone.
I would say don’t go on Christmas Eve. That is the only day of the year when Danish churches are really crowded.
But there are tons of other services during the Christmas period, and they’ll be happy to see you, even if you’re not a church member, even if you’re not a Christian. Just don’t take selfies during the service and you’ll be fine. And don’t worry – no one will try to convert you. This is Denmark. Just sit quietly and enjoy the beautiful music.
Visiting a Værtshus
Another option is to find a local café that has board games and people who want to play them, or visit a “værtshus”, otherwise known as a bodega or brown bar, one of those old-fashioned Danish pubs with wooden walls and stained glass windows. Some of them are hundreds of years old.
Brown bars are most popular with older Danes, often less wealthy Danes, and somebody there is also going to be alone at Christmas and very happy to chat with you. Actually, these bars are endangered, because the beer is cheap and they don’t make much money, so try one out while you still can. (I saw a hipster made an app to help you find brown bars. It’s called Din Lokale Bodega.)
It’s just important not to get too isolated. That’s one of the downsides of Danish hygge. People who are not inside the hygge circle can feel shut out and very alone.
Don’t let that happen to you. And even on Christmas day itself, there’s one place that’s always open – and that’s the zoo. I’ve been to the zoo on Christmas Day, and it’s very nice. The animals don’t know it’s Christmas, they’re just doing their thing. And so should you.
The holiday period will be over soon enough and it’ll be back to the daily grind. So make sure you have some fun, even if you’re on your own.
Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2019