Danish summer vacation
Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

No ice cream in July: Scenes from the Danish summer vacation period

In Denmark, the right to a long summer vacation is enshrined into law – the national vacation law, which states that all employees have a right to three weeks’ vacation between May and September.

July is peak vacation time, and some companies close down entirely for a week or two, forcing their employees to take some time off.

Shops close, too. An ice cream shop in my neighborhood closed down for the entire month of July last year. You would think this would be peak time for ice cream, but for the owners of the ice cream shop, their own vacation was more important.

Bicycle shop closes

This year, I noticed that the bicycle store up the street is closed for three weeks – hope you don’t get a flat while out biking in the summer sunshine. So is the local “smørrebrød” sandwich shop. (Too bad about your picnic.) Even a local boutique selling swimwear is taking a summer break.

Danes believe that if you take a good, long, Danish summer vacation, you’ll come back refreshed, with new perspectives.

Free time is precious in Denmark – certainly more important than prestige, since people don’t generally use their job titles, and far ahead of money, since whatever you have the government will be taking a big bite out of. Free time is cherished, free time is wealth, and that’s one of the reasons the summer vacation is so prized. 

You’ll often hear Danes ask each other how many weeks they’re taking for summer vacation. “So, this year, are you taking 3 or 4?”

You’re a weirdo if you don’t take a summer vacation

Or, in my case, none. You’re a weirdo if you don’t take a long summer vacation in Denmark, but as a single parent, I rarely take much, and this year none at all.

This year, my daughter graduated from gymnasium, the Danish academic high school. Gymnasiums are a remarkably old-fashioned place where Latin is still taught and the kids do an 18-century minuet type dance at the spring gala – it’s called Les Lanciers. The kids learn it in gym class so they can be ready for the big night.

Graduating from gymnasium is an important and sentimental time for young Danes, and an extremely expensive time for parents.

We spent our vacation money on hats and parties

For example, new graduates, who are called “students” or students, wear a special hat that looks like a boat captain’s hat, white with a colored band that indicates what type of degree they’ve earned. Burgundy for academic, blue for business, green for agriculture etc.

They’re beautiful hats, hand made for each student, with their name embroidered in gold on the back, and they cost at least Dkr2000, or 300 dollars or Euro, for the basic version.

You can also upscale and get a special pillow for the hat to sit on when you’re not wearing it, a special gold pen for your classmates to sign the lining of the hat, or special gold scissors to make tiny clips in the hat if you’ve stayed up all night or drank a certain number of beers. But all that’s extra.

Party #1, Strawberries and champagne

Anyway, you get the hat after finishing your final exam. Your family is waiting outside the exam room, the hat is placed on your head by an honored family member, and everyone enjoys strawberries and champagne while celebrating your achievement.

This is the first party in a series of parties, and you wear the hat everywhere you go for the next week or two. You wear it on the bus, you wear it to the supermarket, and you wear it as you ride around town with all your classmates on a big open-top truck. It’s called the student truck.

Party #2, the student truck

Your place on the student truck costs about Dkr1500 kroner, or 200 dollars or euro. The truck drives around all day, stopping at the home of every student in the class. At each stop, all 25 or so are served food and alcohol at the parents’ expense. (Budget around Dkr2000 for this.)

If you happen to be in Denmark in June and see a lot of drunk teenagers screaming out of the top of a truck, this is why. They’re scholars.

Some parents go all out for these stops: at one stop, the kids in my daughter’s class were served home-brewed IPA beer from bottles with the new graduate’s face on the label.

We were a little more modest, and found the kids had been so overloaded with alcohol by the time they got to our house (stop #15) that they were most excited about our backup drink, San Pellegrino mineral water.

Party #3, for family and friends

Many students then go on to hold a separate party, party number 3, called a “studentergilde”, This one is for extended family and family friends, and the student gets gifts and money. But the parent does not.

Let’s say another Dkr3000 for that party, minimum, depending on the size of your group.

But hey – the student time is a wonderful time. As the kids wear their hats around town, total strangers say “Congratulations!” to them, which is really something, since Danes generally don’t talk to strangers.

It’s just an expensive time, which is why our family is skipping summer vacation this year.

Denmark can be lovely in the summer

If the weather is good, Denmark can be lovely in the summer. You can bike through one of Denmark’s parks or forests, or visit the local museums, along with numerous tourists from cruise ships.

Sail in the harbor in a canoe or kayak, watching out for the pleasure boats owned by the rich in Denmark. Or just sit in the sun if you’re lucky enough to have some.

Denmark can be very pretty in the summer, so pretty it can be hard to understand why anybody goes away.

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