This essay is from a series I wrote shortly after I arrived in Denmark. The line drawings are my own.
Americans can’t be prissy, can they? After all, we invented Las Vegas.
So why am I so shocked at the debauchery of a Danish corporate Christmas party?
It’s not the drinking that shocks me – God knows, Danish people do that all year – or even the sex. I think it’s the proximity of work and sex. In a land with few limits, Americans draw a firm line between work and sex, based on the (rather prissy) notion that no one should have to put up with sexual come-ons or even sexual talk in order to keep a job, and that anyone who does should be compensated with a hefty legal settlement. All I can think about at a Danish Christmas party is how much an American lawyer could earn off the proceedings. One stalk of corporate mistletoe, I am sure, would generate more than enough business for him to redecorate his office with the high-priced furniture at Illums Bolighus and his wife with silver from George Jensen.
Call a lawyer
This American concept of sexual harassment has been difficult to explain to my Danish male co-workers, who like to tell saucy jokes in the office, and whose hands have occasionally ended up attached to my hair, shoulders, and bottom until I threaten to call an American lawyer. For them, I offer this easy-to-follow rule: Anything I might want to discuss with, say, Danish heartthrob Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in a jacuzzi over two flutes of champagne, I do not want to discuss with you, married father of four, over six pages of computer printouts on letterhead. Anything I might want to do with Nikolaj by candlelight, I do not want to do with you by fluorescent light. It’s that simple.
The overfamiliarity between co-workers is just one of the reasons Christmas partys are difficult for foreigners. The structure of the party, the long tables and the fixed seats, is a challenge in itself. At American parties, the format is loose and everybody mingles, which allows one to break free of a bore with a number of convenient excuses, such as Hey! Isn’t that my plastic surgeon over there? I must say hi. At a Danish Christmas party, you sit at a seat assigned to you by luck of the draw or cruel party planners and are expected to chat for seven hours.
Snaps, a Viking tradition
What do Danish people say to each other for seven hours at those tables? Of course, I know what two close friends say to each other, but what about people who have nothing in common but a copy machine? All of a sudden, those dull people from the back of the office, those people you’ve avoided all year, are your companions in fate for the evening. This is where snaps comes in. I feel confident that the tradition of heavy schnapps drinking at Christmas parties can be traced to a Viking forced to sit next to the dull guy from the back oars he’d been avoiding all year. Schnapps must be the only way to get through Hour 3 of hearing about a stranger’s pets, office feuds or summer-house redecoration.
Snaps is also just the beginning of an enjoyable program of Danish food. Question: do foreigners like Danish food? Answer: Is there a fast food chain with “Golden Ds” serving “Dyrelaegen’s Natmal” (pork paste and raw gelatin) to customers all over the world? Of course, the Christmas party has its own delicacies, most of which, taken off the table and reassembled like a puzzle, would form a large, live, and angry pig. Except, of course, for the parts which are herring. When you are a foreigner, Danish people thrill to making you try everything, the odder the better, and watching your reaction when you discover that there is an extra layer of pork paste underneath the bacon and mushrooms. If other foreigners are reading this, the secret is to take small bites of everything and smile a lot. When fellow partygoers are distracted, you can soak up the alcohol in your stomach with bread and butter.
After the almond has been found in the ris a la mande and the snaps topped off with wine and aquavit, the Viking drinking songs begin. Drinking songs seem to be the only modern remnant of Viking culture, except for the way Danish people behave in the bike lanes at rush hour, where they will use their bells with all the ferocity of an ax if you don’t move into the right lane fast enough. At any rate, everyone but you will know all the words to these songs, and enjoy singing them enough not to notice you are sitting against the back wall looking confused. For foreigners, it is time to go to the loo and pretend to wash your hands for about an hour.
By the time you get back, the deejay will be playing. This is a mixed blessing, since from what I can tell, there is a paragraph in the Danish constitution that requires Danish deejays to play George Michael every five songs. But loud music means that you no longer have to pretend to talk to the people next to you, and, freed from your chair, you can shift around and talk to the people you actually like. A few courageous souls start the dancing, mostly women, along a few sad men in elf hats who don’t realize that apart from a bow tie, no garment cuts your score potential more than an elf hat. Every once in a while the deejay plays an old Danish Eurovision song contest entry, and then it becomes easy to tell the locals from the foreigners again. The Danes are the ones on their feet in ecstatic remembrance, while the foreigners are sitting down looking bewildered, wondering when George Michael will come back.
By this point in the evening, those people who plan to score have chosen their target, and perhaps even their location. This, in particular, has always confused me – I mean, I’ve certainly dated people I’ve met in the office, but I’ve always dated, and slept with them, outside the office as opposed to within it. But Christmas party stories are always rife with tales about ping-pong tables, bathroom stalls and the boss’s desk. Some people leave together, but even at home and in bed, I have to wonder how much fun this drunken sex can possibly be. How much sexual technique can these snaps-soaked middle managers have to offer? For the women, it must be about as erotic as having the statue of Bishop Absaolm fall on top of you.
The real challenge of the company Christmas party is the first day back at work afterwards, when you are required to take the middle managers’ opinions on sales strategy and corporate downsizing seriously again. You’ll get little help from the managers themselves, who will be avoiding your eyes, knowing perfectly well that you saw them dancing in their shorts and elf hat to Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go just a few days before. Years ago, before my very first Christmas party, I was told that people would go wild at the party but then forget the whole thing the next day. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Somehow, nobody ever does.
Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2019