Like so many other aspects of life in Denmark, gift giving in the holiday season comes with dozens of unwritten rules and unspoken expectations.
Should you give a gift to your boss? What about your colleagues? Will you and your Danish friends exchange gifts? And why does almost every store in Denmark ask if you want a “gift sticker” when you buy something?
Here are a few basic tips about gift giving in Denmark.
Gift giving isn’t the most important thing
First of all, it’s important to emphasize that gift giving is not the most important thing about the holiday season in Denmark. Food is the most important thing, from the roast pork to the caramelised potatoes to the shredded red cabbage to the buttery Christmas cookies.
Alcohol is probably the second-most important.
And neither one is any good without the hygge of being together with your family at Christmas dinner, or your colleagues at the work Christmas lunch, or your football friends at your team holiday party.
Gift giving runs a distant fourth, so don’t get too worried about not choosing the perfect gift. That’s what the “gift sticker” is for – it means the recipient will be able to take your carefully-chosen gift back to the store and exchange it for something they’d like better.
This is considered perfectly good manners in Denmark, and if you ask your recipient how he or she enjoyed the lovely book you gave them, they may respond, “Oh, I exchanged it for this flower vase. Isn’t it pretty?”
You, of course, can also exchange the gifts you receive if they have gift stickers, but try to do it quickly, because Danish stores have very slender return windows – often as little as two weeks from the time of purchase.
Gift giving at work in Denmark
In some cultures, bosses may expect holiday gifts from the people who work for them, but in Denmark this is not expected and will probably make your boss feel uncomfortable.
The same is true of gifts to your colleagues. Nobody is expecting gifts and will be surprised if they receive them. If you want to share the holiday spirit with your colleagues, bake some Christmas goodies from your home country and bring them into the office for the afternoon coffee break. (Just don’t get offended if they don’t love them as much as you do.)
Gift giving does happen in the other direction: many Danish companies give a holiday gift to all their employees. In small companies, this might be a fruit basket or a box of chocolates; big companies sometimes let you choose your Christmas gift online from among two or three options.
I remember that one of the gifts on offer when I worked at Carlsberg was a mini-massager, the source of a great number of jokes about how employees would be spending their holiday break. Beer and a mini-massager. Ho ho ho.
Gifts for a Danish home
If you’re invited to someone’s home during the holiday season, it’s always a good idea to show up with a prettily-packaged host or hostess gift.
Alcohol is always good – bottles of ‘good red wine’ are the informal secondary currency of Denmark – and so are beautifully-packaged candies or chocolate. Don’t bring something perishable like a cake that the host will feel obligated to serve that evening alongside the dessert he has carefully planned.
Flowers are of course almost always welcome, and fancy candles are nice too. I usually go for unscented unless I know that the host or hostess has a passion for a certain scent.
If you have the opportunity to give some edible item from your native country – hot BBQ sauce from the USA, maple syrup from Canada, special biscotti from Italy, etc. – that will be appreciated as well.
Gift giving with Danish friends
When it comes to your Danish friends, you might exchange gifts, and you might not. Danes are open and direct people, so you can usually say in late November, “Should we exchange gifts this year?”
Your Danish friend might say “Nah….let’s just have a gløgg together.” Or she might say “That would be fun! Let’s do it.” If you agree to exchange gifts, it’s also OK to discuss a price range. “About Dk200-300 per gift?” “Sure, that sounds great.”
(Discussing the price range also works well if you have a Danish romantic partner, so you don’t end up with one partner gifting a fully-outfitted electric bike and getting a knitted hat in return.)
Another option for friend gifts is to give experiences instead of stuff. If you’re both broke students, you can give something simple like a movie night you can enjoy together – “It’s all on me, the tickets, the popcorn, the sodas. You pick the movie.”
When you’re older and in a higher-income bracket, you can gift a shared evening that includes dinner, concert tickets or theatre tickets, or even a weekend trip you can take together to another part of Denmark.
Again, the Danes are pretty open, so it’s OK to ask your friend, “Are you into seeing Justin Bieber performing as Hamlet, and are you free on June 6, 2019?” before making a non-refundable ticket purchase.
Gift giving with Danish family
Family rules aren’t all that different than friend rules: ask in advance if you’ll be exchanging gifts, and if so what the price range is likely to be.
Many families have their own traditions, such as having a pakkeleg or “package game”. Every family’s rules are different, but in general the players throw dice to win wrapped gifts and then ‘steal’ the most exciting-looking gifts from other players.
Another common family tradition is the mandelgave or “almond gift”, which goes to the person who finds the single whole almond in the batch of ris allemande served as the finale to the Danish Christmas meal. Almond gifts are usually small and cute; I’ve been told that my little book Top 35 Mistakes Danes Make in English is a good almond gift.
Your family Christmas schedule will depend on the age of the smallest family members. If they’re under 7 or so, Julemanden, the “Christmas man”, will probably arrive in the early evening on Christmas Eve in the form of a dad, uncle, or tall cousin dressed up in an ill-fitting Santa suit and stick-on whiskers. He will distribute presents to the youngest family members before disappearing into the dark Danish winter night, after which dad, uncle, or cousin will rejoin the family for Christmas dinner.
Many Danes go to church services on Christmas Eve. After the service, when the little ones are asleep, the adults open their gifts to each other.
Gifts from Denmark – my Danish gift recommendations
I get a lot of questions from the internationals who follow my blog and podcast about gifts they can send or bring to friends back home that will represent their time in Denmark.
Here are a few of my favorite gifts from Denmark.
Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2019