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.
Elderly, teenagers, chamber music lovers
In fact, most of the off-season Danish church services I have attended are a thin mix of the very old, a few sullen teenagers required to attend in order to qualify for confirmation (and a confirmation party), plus five or six chamber music enthusiasts from a local conservatory making up the choir.
Sometimes there are a few tourists, if the church is downtown or designed by Jorn Utzon. In the case of a children’s service, there may be a dozen restless children and their parents listening to Bible stories and marvelling at how the priest’s kæreste has been persuaded to wear a robe and fake beard to portray Jesus.
Very rarely, the young hipster crowd will turn up for a jazz service that has a stand-up bass and hand-torn organic spelt bread for the Eucharist.
For most of the year Danish churches are less than a quarter full.
The center of Danish culture
But not on Christmas Eve. For the afternoon and midnight service, it’s pine boughs, candles, hymnals, and standing room only. This is the Danish church’s Superbowl, its World Cup. For a few moments – usually the afternoon and midnight service – Christianity is again at the center of Danish culture.
The Danish church confuses internationals. I met an Egyptian Christian once who had been looking forward to moving here, having grown up a minority in a mostly-Muslim country, only to be disappointed to get here and find out nobody was religious at all.
There is a giant Christian cross on the Danish flag, but nobody ever talks about faith, or cites the Bible to explain why they are doing something. If Danes choose to pay church tax, they often say it’s just to preserve the pretty church buildings, or some vague kind of comment about cultural heritage.
Danes love Gospel music
But at the same time, they love American Gospel music. There seem to be at least a dozen amateur Gospel choirs in Denmark, and a few semi-professional ones: Danes seem to like getting carried away by the passion and joy of Gospel, along with the fellowship of singing together. I frequently recommend Gospel choirs to internationals as a place to meet Danes and find friends.
Outside of Gospel music, Danes often laugh at the American approach to religion. Sometimes it is indeed laughable: I roll my eyes myself when an American football running back points up at the sky after scoring a goal – God assisted him!
And I’m guessing that God himself rolls his eyes when a country-western or R&B star accepting a music award thanks Him for her long and successful career singing pop songs in sparkly clothing.
Europeans are the strange ones
But what was once called the “Bible Belt” is much more diverse than it once was, with a steady stream of immigrants bringing in their own approaches to Christianity, as well as Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. There are also churches that specifically appeal to the LGBTQ community, plus megachurches that can bring ten thousand worshippers to an arena with rock music and a laser light show – fun stuff. Religion is still big in America.
As a matter of fact, religion is pretty big all over the world, in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Latin America; it’s actually the nonreligious Europeans who are the strange ones. And the Danes, like the Swedes and Norwegians, regularly make the list of the world’s least religious countries.
But the Danes do love tradition and they love family events, and that’s what the Christmas Eve service is really about. Merry Christmas.
This article originally appeared in Danish in the newspaper BT on December 16, 2019.