Unlike the Norwegians, Swedes, and some Germans, the Danes don’t show their cultural pride by dressing up in 19th century folk costumes. (As a matter of fact, the first time I ever saw a Danish folk costume was at a festival in California.)
Instead, Danes express their cultural pride through food.
When visiting Denmark, you’ll be offered Danish cuisine, and expressing enthusiasm for it will go a long way towards generating harmony with your Danish friends.
Flæskesteg, Denmark’s national dish
The good news is, dining in Denmark offers something for everyone.
If you’re a carnivore, don’t miss the Danish pork dishes, particularly flæskesteg. That’s a crispy, fatty fried pork that’s often called Denmark’s national dish, served with sugary caramelized potatoes and braised red cabbage.
For people who prefer fish, there’s a great selection in this country surrounded by water.
“Is there politeness in Denmark?”
That was the question I was recently invited on a national TV show to discuss.
The implication was that I was supposed to say that Danes were not at all polite, because effusive praise and cheerful agreement make for a rather dull TV show.
But Danes are not impolite. They have their own version of courteous behaviour, which is based on reinforcing aspects of their culture that they care about.
Planning your summer vacation in Denmark is like playing the lottery. You could hit it lucky, with golden days and long, warm evenings, when you can sit with friends in the soft light and drink hyldeblomst cocktails.
Or you could get grey day after grey day, interspersed with a little rain whenever it is least convenient. The weather could be chilly, leaving your cute new summer clothes to sit disappointed in your closet while you wear your boring long trousers again and again.
April 1st is April Fool’s Day – Aprilsnar in Danish – and each Danish newspaper will feature a clever but false story for the unwary to be fooled by.
Last year, for example, there was a story that the Danish police were switching their siren colors from blue to red to match the Danish flag.
There was also a report that the perennially messy discount supermarket Netto was launching a discount airline – Jetto.
And a local TV station ran a piece about how an acute shortage of daycare workers meant the Danish army had to be called in. It showed video of the battle-hardened tough guys in combat uniforms, reading aloud from storybooks and helping with toilet training.
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.
More than a decade after moving to Denmark, I am pretty well integrated into Danish society.
I’ve learned to speak Danish, I pay my taxes, I bike everywhere, I send my daughter to a Danish school. I enjoy a nice slice of dark rye rugbrød – even when I’m on my own and don’t have to impress anyone with how healthy I’m eating.
But there are a few ways I simply refuse to integrate. I will not do things the Danish way.
Shortly before I arrived in Denmark in 2000, one of the famous guards outside the queen’s palace at Amalieborg was fired. You’ve seen these guards in pictures, the Royal Life Guards. They’re dressed like the British palace guards, only with dark blue coats, instead of red. They have the same tall, black, bearskin hats. It’s no big secret that being in the Royal Life Guards is an excellent path to a powerful future in corporate Denmark.
Anyway, the guard that was fired was special. She was the first woman to guard the Royal Palace at Amalieborg. There was a lot written about it in the newspapers at the time. Unfortunately, this young lady also had a part-time job. She was a prostitute. She would guard the palace by day and run her business out of the royal barracks in the evening. She found customers via escort ads in the local newspapers.
So the young lady was fired. But she was NOT fired because she was a prostitute. She was fired because she’d been ordered by her commander to stop moonlighting after her side-job was first discovered, and she did not stop. In fact, she’d been asking her soldier colleagues to drive her to her various nighttime appointments. She was fired for not following orders.
This essay is from a series I wrote shortly after I arrived in Denmark. The line drawings are my own.
Danes like to see themselves as a relaxed, casual society that doesn’t put too much emphasis on formal manners.
That said, there are powerful unwritten rules about Danish manners that will earn you sullen, silent disapproval if you do not follow them.
For example, when sharing food with the Danes, you may not take the last item on any given plate.
You may take half of it, and it is quite entertaining to watch the last of a plate of delicious cookies be halved, and halved again, and then halved one last time, so there is only a tiny crumb left – which no one will take because it is the last item on the plate. Someone will gobble it guiltily later in the kitchen during clean-up.
Bring your own birthday cake
If it is your birthday, your friends or colleagues will congratulate you heartily, and celebrate by putting a Danish flag on your desk, regardless of what your actual nationality may be. They will not, however, be providing any sweets.
That’s your job, and it is considered good form to bring a cake or fruit tart for the after-lunch period. If your workplace is particularly busy, you can just announce by group email that the cake is in the kitchen for whenever anybody has time. There, each colleague can cut his or her own piece, carefully slicing the last bit into tinier and tinier halves so you will have a small, nearly transparent sliver to take home with you at the end of the day.