At the end of November most Danish families hang up a wreath with four candles. The first candle is lit on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, two candles are lit the following Sunday. It is called an advent wreath. Often the wreaths are decorated with ribbons and sometimes pinecones or other decorations.
On the first of December we light a calendar candle. It has numbers on it and you are only supposed to burn down one number a day. Many people have other decorations with candles in around the house. At school every class has at least one candle decoration, in a lot of our classes each child has a decoration on his or her desk.
At home and at school we hang up Christmas calendars. The television sends a story in 24 parts and a paper Christmas calendar is sold that has something to do with the television story. A lot of shops and banks also make Christmas calendars as free gifts for the children of their customers. The paper calendars have doors you can open and behind each door there is a picture. The radio also has a continued story read for children every day.
Most children have a gift calendar at home. This means they get a small gift every day. At school many classes have hung up presents and they draw lots to see who is going to choose a present that day.
We send Christmas cards to friends and family and the shops are very busy because of all the customers. They are open very late to try and get more people to come and buy. Christmas is an expensive time for most people.
Our homes and places of work are decorated with many decorations cut from coloured cardboard or softer paper that is very shiny. We make two coloured plaited hearts with the shiny paper and from long white strips of paper we fold intricate stars to be hung from branches or put on Christmas trees. When you walk along a street in the evening and the lights are on you will notice that most people have paper decorations hung up in the windows, you can see their outlines.
Food is very important at Christmas. It is not considered a proper Christmas if you have not baked your own traditional biscuits/cookies. We have some spicy ones called brown cakes that are only made at Christmas and some special small cakes made of dough that is deep fried called "klejner". In different families they have different traditions about which other biscuits and cakes you must make for Christmas. But in most families they are sure to bake small round biscuits called peppernuts. They are easy to make and are favourites with children. The children help make special Christmas sweets out of coloured marzipan in many shapes.
Adults are invited to various Christmas lunches (they can be and often are in the evening). The traditional menu is fish first on separate plates, then warm dishes followed by cold meats and finally cheeses with biscuits.
Traditionally you drink beer and snaps (strong alcohol drunk from small glasses) with this meal. A Christmas lunch lasts a long time and if it is a private affair and not held in a restaurant you will sing songs and have various games and so on in between the eating. The police are very busy in December because some people forget that drinking and driving do not mix.
Different families have different traditions. In some families the tree is decorated by the adults and is revealed as a surprise to the children on Christmas Eve but I think in most families, decorating the tree, is a joint effort. Nowadays many people put electric lights on their trees but traditionally you hang real candles in special holders on the branches.
On the 24th of December the family eats a Christmas dinner, which in most families will be: roast pork with crackling and/or roast duck served with boiled potatoes, pickled red cabbage, tiny sugar coated potatoes (they are brown because the small boiled potatoes are put into the caramelised sugar) and sauce. The traditional dessert is a rice pudding mixed with whipped cream and chopped almonds served with a hot cherry sauce. You must eat until somebody finds the one hidden whole almond. Whoever gets the whole almond wins a gift; usually it is some chocolates or a marzipan pig.
Some families still serve a hot rice pudding at the start of the meal. Traditionally this was to fill you up so you did not have so much space for the roast/duck… to be served after the rice pudding. This of course is where the idea of hiding an almond comes from. It was to be sure that everyone ate as much as possible, before the expensive food was put on the table.
Traditionally a bowl of hot rice pudding must also be put out for the Christmas "nisser" and it must have a large piece of butter in the centre or the "nisse" might be angry and play tricks on you. I think some people in the country still do this especially if they are spending Christmas Eve with younger children. A "nisse" is a kind of elf, smaller than a big dog but larger than a cat. Normally they are not seen, but you have to stay on good terms with your "nisse" or else! There are many stories about "nisser". Today they are mostly considered to be a kind of Santa's helpers.
After the meal the family will gather round the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols. In some families they walk around the tree while they sing, but not everyone has that much space. After the singing it is time to unwrap the presents. If there are younger children one of the family men might dress up as Santa Claus and hand out the presents otherwise the families have different customs about who hands out the presents. When all the presents have been opened and admired it is time for a cup of tea or coffee served with the Christmas biscuits.
There are several church services on the 24th of December. Some people only go to church that one day a year. Depending on where you live and how many services are offered you might go to church in the afternoon or evening or at midnight. Many people prefer going the following day. But in general the Danes are not very religious.
The Second Day of Christmas is also an official holiday and if you do not relax at home you might go to another Christmas lunch in someone else's home.