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.
This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on April 10, 2019. The next installment will run on April 24, 2019.
Usually when you are a first-time voter in Denmark, you are 18 years old, and the excitement of being able to vote comes second to the excitement of being able to get tattoos and piercings without your parents’ permission.
I am somewhat older than that, so for me the chance to vote in my first election for the national Parliament (Folketing) is really exciting. I became a citizen of Denmark in 2017, and although I’ve been able to vote in municipal elections before, this is the first time I get to make an impact nationally.
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.
Travel brochures usually talk about the sights and the smells and the tastes of a new place, but they don’t always talk about the sound of a place. Denmark has a sound, a default sound. And that sound is quiet.
Denmark is a quiet country, even within the cities. Especially this time of year, February, when it’s too cold to do anything but scurry from place to place, when the street cafés are closed and no one wants to eat their lunch in the park. The Danes are hibernating in their homes until the spring.
And especially when a blanket of snow covers the cities and countryside. Then everything around you will be beautifully, peacefully, totally quiet.
This Danish quiet can freak out a lot of internationals when they first arrive. If you’ve read my first book, you’ll know I tell the story of a refugee who’d just arrived in Denmark from Cairo, Egypt, and he asked another more established refugee to show him downtown Copenhagen.
The established friend took him to Strøget at, like, 9pm on Tuesday night in February, and the refugee was like, this is not a city! There’s no one here! He accused his friend of tricking him.
But it was the city. It was the capital city. And it was quiet.
We’ve talked on the podcast about what to do if you’re spending your Christmas holiday with family and friends – but what if you’re not? What if you’re an international who is alone in Denmark during the holiday season?
This is a topic that is near to my heart, because it was what happened to me when I first arrived in Denmark. It wasn’t Christmastime, it was spring, when the Danish holidays come one after the other.
I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t speak the language, and back then all the stores were closed on holidays. I had to live off hot dogs from the hot dog wagons. So I know what it’s like.
These days supermarkets are open for at least limited hours during the holidays, but not much else is, particularly on the big three days – December 24, 25, and 26. On December 24, the buses even stop running for a few hours so the drivers can be with their families.
So, if you’re alone for Christmas in Denmark, what do you do?
Plan a project in advance
Well, the first thing to do is prepare in advance. Basically, there is not much going on in Denmark between December 23, which is when the stores close after Christmas shopping, and Jan 2, when the normal work week resumes. That’s about 10 days.
So, it’s good to prepare a project. A big box set is good. I recommend the Danish TV series Matador, which is about a rivalry between two families. Danes will tell you that it totally explains Danish culture and thinking.
Other big projects are good too, like cleaning off your computer, or getting your taxes in order. One of the Danes’ favorite ways to shield their income from taxes is making contributions to a pension fund, and the window closes sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, on the last banking day of the year.
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.
I get a lot of questions from the internationals who follow my blog and podcast about gifts from Denmark they can send or bring to friends back home.
Here are a few of my favorite gifts from Denmark that show Danish craftsmanship and Danish style. If you’re ordering from abroad, you’ll probably notice that Danish style comes with Danish prices, which can be hefty. I’ve tried to choose medium-priced, high-quality items.
I should make clear that (regrettably) I’m not getting paid by any of these companies to promote them. I’m just a fan.
Danes are world champions at kitchenware
The Danes do kitchenware very well. In particular, I like the colourful cotton aprons, oven mitts, and dishtowels from H. Skjalm P in Copenhagen, and have given matching aprons and mitts to both men and women.
I also like the kitchenware from the Danish brand Eva Solo, which I think is attractively designed and reasonably priced.
When I was working on the 5th anniversary podcast last week, I realized I’d had podcasts on spring in Denmark, summer in Denmark, winter in Denmark, but nothing on autumn in Denmark.
And that’s too bad, because early fall can be one of Denmark’s prettiest seasons.
Autumn in Denmark actually starts in mid-August, when the kids go back to school. Danish kids have a very short holiday – usually only about 6 weeks. By late August, you can definitely feel a little fall crispness in the air. By September the leaves start to turn color, and by the end of October many of the trees are already bare for the winter.
But what really defines fall in Denmark is the slow fading of the light.
It’s spring in Denmark, and spring is by far my favorite season here. The wonderful white Scandinavian sunlight is back after the dark days of the winter, the flowers are coming out on the trees, and everybody’s in a good mood. The outdoor cafés are full of people again – sometimes draped in blankets to keep warm, but outside all the same.
April and May are often the best months for weather in Denmark, along with September. Summers can be rainy. And April is when Tivoli opens in Copenhagen. (Side note: when you see a man in Denmark with his trousers accidentally unzipped, you quietly inform him “Tivoli is open!”)
Tivoli is one of the world’s great non-disappointing tourist attractions – it’s constantly updated, with new shops, new rides, fresh flowers and fresh restaurants. And in the spring, it’s not as crowded as it is in the summer. You can hang out all day, have a picnic, ride the rollercoaster, even hear some bands play.
I’ve been living in Denmark so long that I sometimes forget what it’s like not to live in Denmark. Specifically, I forget that in most countries, adult men and women don’t want to walk around in an elf hat, even at Christmastime.
Wherever alcohol is served
In Denmark, the red and white elf hat is part of any Christmas activity where alcohol is served, and even a few where when alcohol isn’t served. Children occasionally wear the elf hats, which are called Nissehue in Danish. At my daughter’s school pageant, the girls wear long white gowns and carry candles for the Santa Lucia procession, and the boys wear elf hats.
But you’re more likely to see an elf hat on an adult, quite possibly on your boss or your professor or somebody else you’re supposed to respect. Wearing an elf hat as a grown-up in Denmark is the way to show you’ve got a sense of humor about yourself, that you’re up for a party, that you see the fun in Christmas. Or, that you can see any fun in life at all after four weeks of nonstop grey skies and rain during Danish November.
Elf hats will be out in force during Danish corporate Christmas parties. You’ll see them on the dance floor, and quite possibly see two of them making out in the printer room. Danish corporate Christmas parties get pretty wild, which why furniture movers say their big season is December and January. One half of a couple misbehaves at the Christmas party, and the movers are there the next weekend.
French people don’t want to wear the elf hat
Anyway, elf hats got me in trouble a few years ago when I was trying to make a corporate video at Carlsberg, showing how our Danish division worked together with our French colleagues to make a special Christmas beer.
The Danish team, including the executives, all wanted to be festive and wear elf hats. So I asked the French team if they would too.
Let’s just say the French people did NOT want to wear the elf hat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen angrier French people in my life.
Danish Christmas calendar on TV
But elf hats are not the only signs Danish Christmas is on the way. There are braided hearts, for example. Braided hearts are the little red-and-white paper ornaments that look like tic-tac-toe patterns. You’re supposed to braid them together with your friends, at braiding heart afternoons, and then use them to decorate your home, or your tree.
Another sign is the Christmas Calendar on Danish TV. The Christmas calendar is a heartwarming show with a new episode every day during the Christmas season, which all your Danish colleagues will watch and be talking about.
I have never watched one, and this disturbs the Danes around me, because it’s supposed to be a communal experience. Other mothers at school have questioned whether or not my daughter was being properly raised if she couldn’t watch the Christmas calendar on TV.
A lot of Danish companies do ‘Julekalender’, too, with different bargains on every day of the season. If you have the time and energy to keep up with more than one of these calendars, congratulations – you are having a quiet holiday season.
Bring all your money to the Danish post office
One more Christmas experience you may be having is a little letter from the Danish post office, telling you that friends and family from abroad have sent you a Christmas present.
The little letter will say that if the present is worth more than 80 crowns, you need to pay 25% Danish value-added taxes on it, plus a DK150 administrative fee, and some cases 2.5% customs as well.
You could have avoided this by having your family buy online from somewhere in the E.U., like Amazon.co.uk, but now it’s too late. Unless you want Grandma’s hand-knit sweater to be returned to her, marked ‘rejected’, you’ve going to have to go pick up the package and pay.
Depending on where you live, you may get the chance to go pick up the package at a convenient location at a warehouse on the outskirts of town. You and your money will follow the signs down a dusty concrete staircase to some odd office in the basement to find a wizened old postal clerk…and there’s a good chance he’ll be wearing an elf hat.
Get the How to Work in Denmark Book for more tips on finding a job in Denmark, succeeding at work, and understanding your Danish boss. It can be ordered via Amazon or Saxo.com or from any bookstore using the ISBN 978-743-000-80-8. Contact Kay to ask about bulk purchases, or visit our books site to find out how to get the eBook. You can also book a How to Work in Denmark event with Kay for your school, company, or professional organization.