This will be our third Christmas in Copenhagen. Wow – really? Yes. I know. It’s crazy. But true. And when you land in a country like Denmark at the beginning of December, Christmas becomes an iconic bookmark of sorts for your experiences here. This isn’t so bad. Danes love Christmas. Good thing I do too. And I truly love Danish Christmas.
Tonight I met a Dane who also loves Christmas. To be honest – I haven’t met a Dane that really doesn’t like Christmas yet, but Trine Hahnemann REALLY loves Christmas. Trine is a professional cook and cookbook author and tonight she shared stories, recipes and tastes of her own Danish Christmas. Thank you to Isabella Mousavizadeh-Smith, owner of Books and Company, an international book cafe in Hellerup, Denmark for hosting an evening with Trine to learn about her personal Scandinavian Christmas traditions.
Trine loves celebrating Christmas. For her it is more than the religious holiday. Like many Danes, holidays here have a rich and historic tradition that goes back even further than the arrival of Christianity to this part of the world. For her, Christmas is a way to celebrate the year that is ending. New Year’s is more of a look to the year ahead. But Christmas – this is a time to stop and take a pause. She believes that almost all cultures have a way of marking an end to each cycle. A natural way of stopping. Christmas is that for her. And for many Danes. And stop Danes do. Christmas takes up a full three days here. Shops close. The streets are quiet. People are together.
By the time December rolls around here in Denmark – it is dark. For me, it’s really dark. I’ve spoken of it before. There still a few weeks left before school lets out for our winterferie, or winter break. My children are now rising before the sun and coming home in the dark. By the winter solstice on December 21st, there will be only seven hours of daylight. Celebrating and feasting and communing is necessary and has been done at this time in Scandinavia since the Vikings and probably before. I might celebrate too if Ragnar Lothbrok was coming to my feast. (Sorry – I just started watching the HBO series, the Vikings. I’m a tiny bit obsessed. With the show people. Not Ragnar. But if Chris Hemsworth would ever make an appearance as Thor – put a fork in me. I’d be done. What a present. Merry Christmas and Glædelig Jul. Oh sorry, I digress.)
Christmas is a perfect time for being present in the ritual of celebrating the end of every year. Trine believes that we need to celebrate each year. Even the bad years. “Life is a roller coaster,” she says. We should enjoy the ride. Even the downs. And of course the ups. Christmas is that for her.
Her ritual, not unlike many Danes, is steadfast. She has a plan. A Jule template if you will. And it starts the four advent Sundays before the 24th of December. That is Danish Christmas you know. But what about the 25th you may wondering? Here, that is known as 2nd Christmas, when you visit the other side of the family. And the 26th is for 3rd Christmas – I guess a day dedicated to the familial outliers and outlaws or, as we refer to them in our family, the “in-law-in-laws.”
There is no “boxing day” here in Denmark. Only more ritual, tradition and FOOD. Lots and lots of rich and very specific food. For each part of it. Each day. Trine reminds us how much emotion we tie to specific food. And what eating that food can do to create community and connection and reinforce culture and tradition. Dare I say hygge. She doesn’t stray from recreating those quintessentially Danish Christmas foods every year. Her children know by now that they…
Don’t mess with Mama’s Christmas.”
– Trine Hahnemann
And why should they? It’s good. We got to sample some of Trine’s own rugbrød with hjemmelavet rullepølse. Homemade rolled pork. It is one of those things that I see in the shops often and am always a little squeamish and slightly suspicious of. What exactly IS in rullepølse? Tonight, I didn’t process it so much or think about it too intently. I just tried Trine’s. It was delicious. Especially when served on her chewy, dense, dark malted rye bread with a little mustard and pickled asier. Also known as marrow in the UK, asier is a member of the zucchini family available only for short time during late summer.
This gives you a small sense about how much planning goes into the traditional Danish Christmas meal. You have to start preparing and preserving and pickling when ingredients are in season. Luckily for you and me – if you didn’t know all the dishes necessary for each Danish Christmas days in advance – you can still buy most of the items from your local market. Even Trine will admit that the importance in attempting your Danish Christmas is to keep it fun. She wants you to enjoy the whole process. Keep it hyggeligt. So if this means prioritizing only some of the recipes, while including some ready made items, she is all for it. For you. She won’t be doing it. But she won’t judge you.
The base of the Danish Christmas menu is pretty standard across the board, as evidenced by the prevalence of the following items in EVERY grocer, butcher and market across Denmark. And while Trine will concede that there are some potential tweaks to the ritual menu even between different Danish families, she doesn’t stray from year to year. Does your family serve risengrød (rice porridge) to start? Or risalamande (a creamy sweetened rice pudding) served cold with warm cherry sauce and almonds for dessert? From what I have gleaned – it’s an either or for the Danes. And nary the tween shall meet – you don’t serve both. Your choice, tradition and conviction about where and what type of the rice porridge to serve is almost as serious as the consternation you’re sure to receive when you forget to put down the divider on the conveyer belt at the grocery store.
So what does Trine serve her family EVERY Christmas? Seriously. She isn’t joking. I told you she loves Christmas. Don’t mess with Mama’s Christmas.
TRINE HAHNEMANN’S TRADITIONAL DANISH CHRISTMAS MENU
Roast Pork with Crackling
Sautéed Red Cabbage
White Potatoes with Gravy
Risalamande with Hot Cherry Sauce
TRINE’S ADD ONS:
Brussels Sprouts with Clementines
Kale Salad with Pomegranate
She knows that the menu is rich and not exactly health conscious. But the Danes have an “everything in moderation, including moderation” approach when it comes to the holidays. Especially Christmas. This is a once a year meal. And she thinks it is worth waiting for. Enjoying. And sharing. This is julehygge. Cozy Christmas community. Danish style.
I had to laugh at her explaining the process for the caramel potatoes chastising those who thought you could leave this seemingly simple side dish to the end like an afterthought. Oh no. She said. Oh no. I thought. Cringing a bit in my folded chair, was she literally talking to me? How could she know about my last Christmas dinner? Gah. Ok. Ok. I admit it. I seriously messed up the caramel potatoes. Unrecognizable. To any Dane. For sure.
Now before you judge – I will tell you that I feel fairly adept at the roast pork now and can fashion a mostly moist and tasty duck. If you know me, you know I love to roast a duck.* I can handle the cookies and the chocolates and definitely the gløgg. Even the rice and red cabbage seem right. But the potatoes. Those christmassy caramel ones anyway. Utter FAIL.
Last Christmas, my darling Danish guests were sweet and took tastes. They wondered, out loud, if this was my American addition to their Danish meal tradition – the rest of which I’d apparently been successful at administering. Um. No. I said. Those are brunkartofler. Caramel potatoes. Nej. No they aren’t. Not really. Now I know. This year I’ll do better. I’ll prep and prepare and stir and stir and layer and layer. The golden buttery sugary layers of caramel for my Danish Christmas potatoes. Thank you Trine! Tusind tak!
Want Trine’s recipes for your own? You can pick up her Christmas cookbook at Books and Company in Hellerup along with her other titles focusing on Scandinavian Baking and Scandinavian Comfort Food. She is charming, effusive and engaging. If she comes to your town on tour, I recommend seeking her out. I can’t wait to try some of her techniques and more than one of her recipes.
WHERE TO BUY in COPENHAGEN:
BOOKS AND COMPANY
International bookshop and café
Sofievej 1, 2900 Hellerup, Denmark
+45 3930 4045
Have you attempted the Danish Christmas dinner? Ok. Back up. Are you a Dane? Unfair advantage. Oh you aren’t? Have you? You have? How did it go? I’d love to hear your trials and tribulations around your Christmas table. I shared mine. Please do yours. Cheers from Copenhagen, Erin
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