Danish Holidays & Traditions
Danes are a happy people. In Denmark, great attention is paid to traditions, customs and festivals.
Many Danish traditions are based around the Christian calendar, with Christmas, Easter and St. John’s Eve (at the end of June) being some of the most important and typically spent together with family.
Other important celebrations include the carnival “Fastelavn” in February, New Year and Great Prayer Day, which was established to combine several traditional holidays into one day. There are also May Day (Labour Day) and April Fools Day, where Danes tease each other with pranks and outlandish stories. In recent years, Danes have also started to embrace both Valentine´s Day and Halloween.
Special Flag days are: Public Holidays - Military - Religious - National Flag Days
Valentine's Day – Feb. 14th - (Sankt Valentins Dag)
established back in 500AD, is an annual commemoration held in February and named after an early Christian martyr by the name of 'Valentine' , to originally celebrate love and affection between intimate companions but today has extended to family and friends. In the early 1990s, the Danes began to celebrate Valentine’s Day as the great day of love, inspired by the American custom. It is especially the young and people in love who use the day as an occasion to show their love for each other.
Valentines cards. hearts made of flowers, chocolate, pasta or cake are just a few examples of the available options.
Shrovetide - (Fastelavn)
is celebrated either the Sunday or Monday before Ash Wednesday. Fastelavn is the name for Carnival in Denmark and originated with the Catholic celebrations just before Lent. Since the Protestant reform occurred in Denmark, the holiday is not as closely tied to religious connotations. Traditionally, children will dress up in costumes akin to the American Halloween custom, and gather treats; it’s a very special time for family fun and games, and some towns are noted for their Fastelavn festivities and parades.
The most notorious game is that of “slå katten af tønden” (hit the cat out of the barrel). Children take turns hitting a candy-filled barrel decorated with the image of a black cat, with a wooden club. The child who hits the barrel hard enough to make the candy spill out, is crowned King “kattekonge” or Queen "Kattedronning” of cats. Many centuries ago, during medieval times, a live cat would be used, and the barrel would be beaten until the cat escaped, and it was then chased out of town. At the time, villagers believed the cat would take bad luck and evil spirits with it as it was driven away.
Though there are regional differences, another popular tradition amongst Danish children is to (gently) flog their parents until they wake up on the morning of Fastelavn. The children decorate bunches of twigs or branches and then decorate them with candy, figurines, feathers, egg shells and the like. This tradition is said to have roots in old fertility rituals which were later absorbed into the Christian tradition, but it has also been said to symbolize the sufferings of Christ on the Cross. In either case, today the reward for a good flogging is a "Fastelavnsbolle", a cream-filled sweet roll typically covered with icing. Danish children will sing various Fastelavns songs.
April Fools Day - Apr. 1st - (Aprilsnar)
is a tradition which dates back to the 17th century. As in many other countries, the Danes also tease each other with fictitious stories on that day. The day is marked by the commission of hoaxes and other practical jokes of varying sophistication on friends, enemies and neighbors, or sending them on fools' errands, the aim of which is to embarrass the gullible.
Probably the oldest trick in the book, Vaseline on doorknobs continues to be an April Fools' classic or add blue or green food coloring to the milk in your fridge, so when someone tries to fill up their cereal bowl they’ll think the milk has gone WAY off!
Occupation of Denmark - Apr. 9, 1940 - (Besættelsen)
National Flag Day - (half mast until 12:00 and 2 minutes of Silence is observed - after noon full mast)
During much of World War II, Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany. - Contrary to the situation in other countries under German occupation, most Danish institutions continued to function relatively normally until 1943. During the German occupation, King Christian X became a powerful symbol of national sovereignty. Both the Danish government and king remained in the country in an uneasy relationship between a democratic and a totalitarian system until the Danish government stepped down in a protest of the German demands to institute the death penalty for sabotage.
Just over 3,000 Danes died as a direct result of the occupation.
Palm Sunday - (Palme Søndag)
is the Sunday before Easter and commemorates Jesus Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, according to Christian belief. It marks the beginning of Holy Week and always falls on the Sunday before Easter Sunday.
Many people who attend a Palm Sunday church service receive palms. They are later hung up in houses for good luck, buried to preserve crops, or used to decorate graves. The palm branch is traditionally a symbol of joy and victory.
Maundy Thursday - (Skærtorsdag)
is the first day of a five-day Easter weekend and commemorates Jesus Christ’s institution of the Eucharist during the Last Supper, which is described in the Christian bible. Churches may also have the blessing of holy oil and feet washing as part of their Maundy Thursday service. Workers and students have a day off.
Easter - (Påske)
Good Friday - (Langfredag) - Public Holiday & Religious Flag Day (on half mast) all day)
Easter Sunday - (1. Påskedag) - Religious Flag Day
Easter Monday - (2.Påskedag)
Easter is one of the most festive events among Christians worldwide. It commemorates Jesus Christ’s resurrection from death, as written in the Christian bible.
Although Easter maintains great religious significance and many attend church services, some children think of it as a time to get new spring clothes, to decorate eggs and to participate in Easter egg hunts where eggs are hidden by the Easter Bunny. Some children receive Easter baskets full of candy, snacks, and presents around this time of the year. Many homes and shops are decorated for Easter in green and yellow, especially with new-leaved branches and daffodils and many festive Easter Luncheons with Eater brew (Påskebryg) are held with family and friends.
Great Prayer’s Day – (Store Bededag)
is a special Danish festival falling on the fourth Friday after Easter Sunday. Instead of individually celebrating a number of holidays honouring various minor saints in the spring, Danes celebrate Store Bededag, or All Prayers' Day, on the fourth Friday after Easter.
This public holiday was instituted by Count Johann Friedrich von Struensee in the 18th century.
People dress in new spring garments and go for a stroll and come home to eat special warm bread called “Varme Hveder”. In the evening, church bells are rung.
May 1st - Labor Day - (Arbejdernes Kampdag)
is the international workers’ campaign and festival day and a holiday in many workplaces.
In many cities, people gather in the early afternoon – sometimes after having walked in procession – for a mixture of
popular festival, political speeches and entertainment. The largest event takes place in Copenhagen largest park 'Fælledparken'. The day has gradually become more of a festival day than a campaign day.
Denmark's Liberation - (Befrielsesdag)
National Flag Day - (On half mast until 12:00 to indicate the mourning, after noon to full mast indicating Denmarks freedom)
Historic date. as this was the day that the German forces surrendered in Denmark under World War II to the Allies. The day is marked by public memorial ceremonies for fallen members of the Danish resistance, and by demonstrations of the left-wing, both in memory of the communist resistance fighters and also carrying slogans of peace and solidarity linking the struggle in the past with new ones today.
When Danes heard the announcement of their freedom the evening of May 4, 1945, many Danes placed lit candles in their windows. It was a moving sight for many Danes as windows of entire towns lit up in quiet celebration. The tradition of placing a lit candle in one’s window is a custom that continues today on May 4th.
Mother's day - (Mor’s Dag)
In the 16th century, England adapted this tradition and instituted Mothering Sunday on the 4th Sunday of Lent (the 40 day period leading up to Easter). After disappearing for a few centuries, it was in 1872 that Julia Ward Howe suggested Mother’s day in the United States. - The Mother's Day International Association was incorporated on December 12, 1912, with the purpose of furthering meaningful observations of Mother's Day as a holiday to be held each year on the 2nd Sunday of May. - In Denmark, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May. Since 1929, it has been a widespread custom to please one’s mother with for instance a bunch of flowers.
Wearing a carnation is another tradition to show love and appreciation on Mother's day.
Ascension Day - (Kristi Himmelfartsdag)
Public Holiday & Religious Flag Day
occurs 39 days after Easter Sunday. It is a Christian holiday that commemorates Jesus Christ's ascension into heaven according to Christian belief.Ascension Day is officially celebrated on a Thursday. In countries where it is a public holiday, Ascension Day is a free day for many workers. Many people take a long weekend off because the day falls on a Thursday. The Friday in between is usually quiet, particularly in shops and offices and special services take place at churches throughout the country.
Pentecost - Whitsun - (Pinse)
(Pinse Søndag) - Religious Flag Day
(Pinse Manday) - Public Holiday
Pentecost is a Christian holiday commemorating the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples of Jesus Christ, according to the New Testament of the Bible and marks the founding of the Church.. It is also known as Whitsunday which falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter. As well as having religious significance, marks the definite appearance of spring. Also known as Whitsunday, meaning "white Sunday", probably due to the white baptismal robes worn on that day. The origins are linked to the ancient Roman festival of Floralia.
Danes celebrate two days of Whitsun and according to popular belief in Denmark, “the sun will dance” on Whit Sunday morning, so on the Saturday night before Whit Sunday, the Danes heads for the woods with picnic baskets and wine (or beer) to watch “the sun dance” or they take part in the many Whitsuntide events such as a Pinse-frokost (Lunch) across the nation on Whitsun Monday
(Pentecost Monday (also known as Monday of the Holy Spirit
Constitution Day - June 5th - (Grundlovsdag)
Public Holiday & National Flag Day
is observed and commemorates the anniversary of the signing of the Danish Constitution in 1849, which established Denmark as a constitutional monarchy, and honors the constitution of 1953, which was adopted on the same day.
From 1660 until 1849 Denmark had been an absolute monarchy. The day has added significance as women were given the vote on 5 June 1915.
Almost all workplaces and shops are closed at noon on this particular day.
Political rallies are held around the country with traditionally festivals and picnics. Very popular nature spots are ‘Rebild Bakker' celebarting Rebild Festival, the annual celebration of the American Independence Day in Denmark - Himmelbjerget’ and ‘Skamlingsbanken’ in Jutland.
This day is also ‘Father’s Day’ in Denmark and small gifts of appreciation are given.
Red roses signify that one's Father is living - and White roses means one's Father has passed away.
Valdemar's Day - June 15th - (Genforeningsdag)
National Flag Day
is the celebration of King Valdemar II of Denmark's victory in a battle in Estonia in 1219 where according to legend Denmark's national flag called ‘Dannebrog’ (means
“flag of the Danish people”)fell from the sky. It is also the date on which Danes celebrate that Sønderjylland in 1920 was reunited with the rest of Denmark after a referendum, thus held in high regard in that part of the country. Next to Constitution Day (Grundlovsdag), it is equivalence to an actual national day, but is less widely known and celebrated today than before. Since 1913, the day has been a national flag day when little Danish flags are sold throughout the country. Until 1948, the day was a school holiday and it was celebrated with Valdemar Festivals in many cities.
St. John's Eve - (Midsummer night) - (Sankt Hans aften)
is a pre-Christianity day, celebrating midsummer or summer solstice, a time of great bounty and fertility on June 24. Sankt Hans (Johannes) is the Danish name of St. John the Baptist. The Danes often meet with family and friends the evening before to have dinner or a picnic together before sunset (Beer and akvavit (Danish Snaps) for toasting at various beaches or lakes to watch the many Midsummer's Eve bonfires that are built and lit up all over Denmark and they usually stay there into the wee hours of the morning kept warm by the bonfires while singing. An essential bread to the affair is called "snobrød" which is prepared from home earlier in the day or the night before. The dough is then twisted around a long branch and cooked over the fire.
It became common to affix a figure resembling a witch on top of the bonfire though some Danes regard this particular part of the tradition with mixed emotions as it evokes memories of the horrible persecutions and "witch"-burnings carried out in Denmark and other European countries in the 17th century - however this holiday is easily one of the most popular and enjoyable Danish evening.
Halloween - Oct. 31st - (Allehelgensaften)
is now slowly but surely becoming a Danish tradition since 1998.
»Slik eller Ballade« will replace the usual »Trick or treat« as you celebrate Halloween. This newly forming tradition is popular with kids and shops and now is also celebrated in ‘Tivoli Gardens’ in Copenhagen.
Halloween originated as a pagan tradition from Ireland then called Samhain. When Ireland became Catholic, the feast was named All Hallows Eve – Allehelgens aften. For Danish Protestants it was a day to remember and pray for the deceased Christians - it was later shortened to Halloween. Scary faces were cut in beets and put outside to scare away the winter demons. As the Irish immigrated to America - beets were replaced by pumpkins, as these grew in abundance.
Today’s activities includes - trick-or-treating, attending costume parties, carving jack-o'-lanterns, bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories and watching horror films.
Remembrance Day - (Veterans Dag)
Military Flag Day
In 2009 the Danish government established Veterans' Day honouring Danish military veterans and personnel who have served abroad. The day is observed with early events on 5 September. Present members of the armed forces are
acknowledged and Past members are remembered.
All Saint's Day - (Allehelgensdag)
was originally a commemoration day for the dead saints held on Nov. 1. The day survived the Reformation, but the Protestants combined it with All Souls’ Day, which was on 2 November. The day was abolished as a church festival in 1770, but is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday in November. In recent years, many parish churches have a tradition of inviting the relatives of those who have passed away during the year to a special commemoration service on All Saints' Sunday. The names of the parishioners who have passed away are read out loud at the service. Many people visit the graveyard or the cemetery on All Saints' Day and it has become common to light a candle on the grave of loved ones.
Christmas Brew Day - (J-day) - Julebryg Dag
As if the Danes needed another excuse to party, there’s J-day.
To celebrate the coming of Christmas, on the first Friday in November horse-drawn carts leave the Brewery laden down with the limited edition Christmas Beer to deliver to the local pubs. At 8:59pm the Christmas beer is launched and locals will dress up, complete with blue coloured Santa hats; free samples of the years brew is handed out and replica snow (foam) lines the streets, particularly in the Rådhuspladsen (Town Halls plaza) in the city centre.
Why is it called ‘J-Dag’? ‘Juleøl’ is the Danish word for Christmas beer (‘Jul’ means Christmas) and the word ‘dag’ is Danish for ‘day’ – what does that mean? J-Dag means ‘Christmas Brew Day!’
The Tuborg beer is the most popular and is the longest running Julebryg in Denmark. Coming from famous brewing company Carlsberg, the beer was created in 1981 after their Christmas advertisement became hugely popular amongst the public. With a blue label coating the outside of the bottle it is hard to mistake this beer which contains traces of caramel, liquorice, and black current.- so if you partake in this weird holiday celebration, be sure to train heartily—most beers are about 5.7 per cent alcoholic content!
Saint Martin's Eve - Nov. 11th - (Mortensaften)
Danish Thanksgiving - is the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier who became a monk after being baptised as an adult. He was eventually made a saint by the Catholic Church for being a kind man who cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm. St. Martin was known as friend of the children and patron of the poor.
Martinmas actually has two meanings: in the agricultural calendar it marks the beginning of the natural winter, but in the economic calendar it is seen as the end of autumn.
Several countries celebrate with light, laterns and often a man dressed as St. Martin with a long red cloak leads the parade on horseback.
In Danish called Sankt Morten or Morten bishop, he is the cause of many legends and customs.
According to legend, the people of Tours wanted to consecrate Martin a bishop against his will and despite reservations from the clergy. Martin was ascetic and humble and found himself unworthy of such a large responsibility, which is why he hid in a stable filled with geese. The geese, however, cackled so much and betrayed his location that he was found and made bishop in 371. To get back at the pesky birds that revealed him, he therefore decided that every year on this day, 11 November, the geese must lose their lives to be eaten. Mortensaften is a long standing celebration in Denmark - on this evening families and friends come together for one purpose – to eat deliciously cooked goose with all the trimmings.
Many centuries later, Martin Luther (the reformer) was baptised on Nov. 11th 1483, the next day on the feast of St. Martin of Tours, after whom he was named.
means 4 Sundays before Christmas. Practices associated with Advent include keeping an advent calendar, lighting an Advent wreath, praying an Advent daily devotional, as well as other ways of preparing for Christmas, such as setting up Christmas decorations.
In Denmark the tradition of having a so-called «Julekalendar« - the local word for a Christmas calendar, even though it's actually an advent calendar. Over the years several kinds of calendars have been created and are used to count or celebrate the days in anticipation of Christmas. The calendar usually begins on Dec.1st and ends Christmas Eve Dec. 24th .Many Advent calendars take the form of a large rectangular card with 24 "windows". One window is opened each day to reveal an image, poem, a portion of a story (such as the story of the Nativity of Jesus) or a small gift, such as a toy or a chocolate item. From the beginning of Advent up until Christmas day, Danes spend time with family and friends making their homes «hyggelig«, decorating, baking, and preparing for Jul.
The word ’hyggelig’ is part of the Danish culture and the word is heard constantly and is as difficult to translate as it is to pronounce. «Hygge« is used when relaxing with good friends or loved ones and while enjoying good food. The word is also heard in many other situations and can mean anything from a cozy atmosphere, elements of warmth, intimacy, joy, liveliness, peacefulness, utter contentment and perhaps even a lovely setting in a home. The word can also be used to describe an event, a person, a place, or even an object.
Lucia Day - Dec. 13th - (Sankta Lucia Dag)
originated in Sweden. Since 1940s it has become a widely celebrated tradition in Denmark. The Santa Lucia tradition usually takes place in church and has close ties to Christianity with Danes attending church on the Sunday closest to December 13th . It’s a special day for girls who are chosen to take part in the Santa Lucia procession. One girl is elected to portray the Lucia Bride who leads a procession of girls in white gowns each carrying a single candle. The Lucia Bride wears a white gown with a red sash and is adorned by a crown of candles. This event is accompanied by the Danish version of the Neapolitan song, Sankta Lucia.
Christmas Eve – Dec. 24th - (Juleaften)
The whole month of December is dominated by Christmas.
Since Christian tradition holds that Jesus was born at night, Midnight Mass is celebrated on Christmas Eve .
This is also the evening where ‘Santa Claus’, (Julemanden) figure with legendary and mythical origins who, in many western cultures, is said to bring gifts to the homes of good children in late evening and overnight hours of Christmas Eve. In Denmark he lives in Greenland and does not come down the chimney but arrives at the front door
delivering the presents directly to the household.
Juleaften (Christmas Eve) in Denmark is when the main festivities of Jul take place and where families gets together and share the traditional Danish Christmas meal which starts with «risengrød« (a rice pudding
commonly sprinkled with cinnamon, sugar and a small knob of butter. In the rice pudding a whole almond is hidden and the one who finds the almond will get the almond present «Madelgaven«
as a prize.) The risengrød is served with a mug of a special «juleøl«
(a typical dark spiced Christmas beer) - then the meal continue with roasted pork loin with cracklings, or alternatively roast duck or goose, boiled or carmelized potatoes with gravy and red cabbage.
In later years many Danes have switched from starting with risengrød to instead ending the meal with ‘ris à la mande’ as dessert. ‘Ris à la mande’ is the risengrød added with sugar, mixed with whipped cream, vanilla, and chopped almonds; and is usually served cold with a cherry sauce (kirsebærsovs)
- tough still with a hidden almond.
After the meal is complete, the family will dance around the Christmas tree (Juletræ) - and sing Christmas carols and hymns. In Denmark, the Juletræ is typically a freshly cut live tree, retrieved only a few days or so before Jul. It is not uncommon to see a Dane bringing their tree home by bicycle!
Artificial plastic trees are a rare site in Denmark and generally considered in poor taste. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, the Danish family will make Julehjerter (woven Danish hearts), Danish folded paper stars, and paper cones filled with candy, fruits, and cookies, for tree trimming. The Danes are very patriotic, and will also decorate the Juletræ with garlands of the Dannebrog (Danish Flag), a tradition which gained popularity after the war with Germany in the 1860s. After topping with a silver or gold star, the traditional Danish Juletræ will be trimmed with real candles.
When the singing is complete, presents which are tucked under the tree, are handed out. After they have been opened, there are more snacks, candy, chips and sometimes the traditional Gløgg (a classic Scandinavian hot spiced wine punch served with raisins and almonds).
Before going to bed, Danish children will leave a bowl of risengrød out for the elves (Nisser).
According to Danish folklore, Nisser are tiny mythical anthropomorphic creatures - usually described as short people (under four feet tall) wearing red caps. They were thought to have cared for and protected a farmer’s home and family from misfortunes during the night so it was important to keep them fed and happy. Nisser could be temperamental, to say the least - if one neglected to feed the Nisse, he might play unpleasant tricks on you. Today, Nissen are still an important part of Jul and you see them practically everywhere during Jul in Denmark as decorative features on Christmas items for good luck.
In most towns, the main shopping streets are decorated with fir garlands and lights. In squares and gardens, there are Christmas trees with fairy lights, a custom dating back to 1914, when the first Christmas tree was lit on the Town Hall Square in Copenhagen. In recent years, it has also become common to cover many other trees or objects with fairy lights.
Christmas Day – Dec. 25th - (1. Juledag)
Public Holiday & Religious Flag Day
Some Danes attend church services while some simply relax at home with family and friends after a fulfilled Christmas Eve. - Others attend or hold a Christmas luncheon (Julefroskost) with special Christmas beer (Juleøl).
Boxing Day - Dec. 26th - (2. Juledag)
was traditionally a day following Christmas when people would box up their presents.
Today it has become a day to go shopping, exchange received gifts and check out special sales at the Malls.
The Danes loves to eat, drink and be merry and continue their Christmas spirit by holding more luncheons. A typical Christmas Lunch involves lots of beer and snaps.
It begins with a variety of fish courses, open face sandwiches with herring,
and deep fried plaice filet with remoulade.
Herring courses can include pickled or curried herrings on rugbrød
(rye bread). The fish course usually also include smoked eel, shrimp and smoked salmon. Next will be a variety or warm and cold meats, such as sausages, fried meatballs (frikadeller) , liver pâté (leverpostej) all served with red or green braised cabbage dishes. Dessert is usually a variety of cheeses. From time to time, a cheer ("Skål
") is called out and everyone stops eating to lift their glasses. Singing is also part of the tradition and many Danish drinking songs are heard throughout the day.An average Dane usually attends three to four Christmas luncheons (Julefrokoster
) during the Holiday Season.
New Year’s Eve - December 31st - (Nytårsaften)
A New Year's tradition 'the Viking swim' takes place on the morning of December 31st. where each year aout 500 daring Danes. just like their Viking ancestors. dives into the near-freezing water of the ocean in Copenhagen’s popular harbour pools at Islands Brygge.
New Year’s Eve is celebrated in the evening in Denmark with social gatherings, where many people dance, eat, drink champagne and watch the fireworks.
Some attend a late night church service.
On New Year’s Eve the whole country watch the TV or radio broadcast at 6pm of the Danish Queen Margrethe II’s New Year Speech, which was first made in 1942 during the German Occupation by King Christian X when he called for national unity.
The traditional New Year’s Eve menu is boiled cod, or stewed kale with cured saddle of pork. Many Danes party at midnight with champagne and marzipan ring cake (Kransekage) while wearing paper hats, throw streamers, light sparklers and blow up balloons to constitute the traditional New Year’s decorations.
The climax of the celebration is the fireworks launched as the Town Hall Tower bells chime on the stroke of midnight,
which marks the start of the new year. Thousands of people gather together in ‘Rådhuspladsen" (the Town Hall Square) in Copenhagen and cheer. The Royal Guard parade in their red gala uniforms. The celebrations generally go on past midnight into the early morning hours.
January 1st ( New Year's Day) is a both a Public Holiday & Religious Flag Day