Tillykke med fødselsdagen! Happy Birthday!
How to Celebrate in Denmark | Etiquette and Cultural Misunderstandings
Tillykke med fødselsdagen! Congratulations with your birthday! That’s how you say “Happy Birthday” in Denmark. And there are certain ways to celebrate it here. Like most everything you encounter when moving abroad, no matter where that may be, you quickly find there are distinct rituals and customs about how to do things. Those little, unspoken rules that are blanketly accepted by that society. The “rules” that no one tells you about until you do something incorrectly. Didn’t you know? That’s how we do it here. We all knew. Why don’t you? It was in the manual.
RULES TO LIVE BY
Manual? What manual? I didn’t get the manual! The I-grew-up-in-[insert country here]-and-have-been-culturally-assimilated-by-virtue-of-experiencing-all-of-these-rules-since-birth-manual. Oh. That manual. I don’t have one. Weirdly they don’t hand those out with the CPR numbers and residency permits when you move to Denmark. Might I find one on Amazon? Um no. Did your new country come with one? Yes? Color me jealous.
But you live in a place for a while and you learn. Those rules. The little cultural rules that help you fit in. Assimilate. Not stand out as the overly loud-laughing American you are. (That may never change. I apologize in advance, but I do love a hearty belly laugh.) In Denmark, you learn to put down the divider after your groceries on the belt at the grocery store. That one you glean early. One can only receive “the look” so many times before it sticks. I call it the Danish look of incredulity. It is a powerful means to compliance in these parts. The look is strong and undeniable. Why are you looking at me like that? Oh, I’m sorry! Undskyld! Ok. Divider down. Or sometimes plunked down for you. This is now so ingrained in me that I may or may not have thrown the same shade when back visiting family in the States last summer. (May HAVE is the answer). GAH. Put down the divider people. Uh.
So when it comes to celebrations, you can only imagine the very specific set of ceremonial requirements to say cheers in Denmark. Skål! That means cheers. Or bowl. But in this setting … cheers! Danish celebrations can include but are not limited to, any holiday, anniversaries, christenings, confirmations, “non-firmations,” graduations, first days of work, last days of work and of course… birthdays.
Danes love celebrating birthdays. It usually involves lots of little Danish flags, which while charming is still somewhat odd to me. Until moving here, I had never decorated a birthday cake with tiny American flags. Only would I maybe… if you happened to be born on the 4th of July. (And not named Tom Cruise.) But here, you bedeck your lagkage (layer cake) with a million and one tiny Dannebrog. Danish flags. I have used the little red and white ones often. When in Copenhagen! Look at me ma, I’m assimilating!
We may have learned the hard way about birthday celebrations in Denmark. Often you throw a party and invite your friends and family. And you always serve cake. At my husband’s Danish office, he is expected to bring in cake for the team. For his birthday. To share with them. I use the term cake loosely as it can be defined as any type of sweet baked goods. This year he made his own apple strudel. Which isn’t really Danish unless you count the Danish æbler he used. But it was delicious!
What happens if you decide to host a gathering at home to celebrate your birthday? Do you want to throw a party? And potentially include all of your Danish friends? There are some rules of etiquette to do so. These unknown to outsiders, take for granted and assume all understand kind of little rules that we may or may not have gaffed several times before we learned.
CELEBRATING WITH DANES
Let me explain. It isn’t that difficult, once you figure it out. Danes just need more information. More than we were used to giving. Danes aren’t high maintenance per se. And they do love parties. They are fun at parties. You should always invite them. Despite their stereotypical proclivity towards being private, Danes love a party. They love to celebrate. And it is super fun when they do. You want to be invited. To their party. And if you are. Say yes. It will be fun. I promise. Even if you don’t understand everything they are saying. Skål! Cheers! TILLYKKE! Congratulations! Go. There will be cake. And singing. And probably a few belly laughs to be had.
But back to my point, Danes just have pretty specific ways that they are used to celebrating. I think of myself as fairly low key. My husband too. Laid back. Go with the flow. Maybe it is a west coast thing. We came up against this little cultural difference when living on the east coast of the United States, in Philadelphia, where start times for events are more …. let’s say… Danish. Hard starts. My husband and I – we’re soft starters. Don’t judge us. We’ll commit. Don’t worry. We’ll be there. We just won’t be the first ones there. Usually EVER. Vi ses! See you later!
Our laid back, flexible, come-one-come-all-the-more-the-merrier-whenever-you-feel-like-it attitude doesn’t always make sense to the average Dane. Most of them need details. Specific details. I’ll let you in on a hint about an invitation from me. Don’t worry. We are still having the party. I don’t really care how many of you come. Whether there are 8 of us, 18 of us or 78 of us. Seriously. It doesn’t matter to us. I still have to clean the bathrooms and mop the floors. It’s the same work for me. If you bring a bottle, I’m happy to have you. Come on in. And bring your roommate or your partner or your co-worker or your new boyfriend. As long as you like them. I will like hosting them. (Most of the time. Everyone has limitations. Pompous and self-absorbed are usually mine.)
But after having hosted more than a few gatherings while living here in Denmark, we have learned the hard way that when we thought our invitations were quite clear, we quickly realized they were often misconstrued. OHHHhhhhh. Didn’t you get that? I thought that was obvious. Oh. It definitely wasn’t. Ok. Now I know. That I have to make that clear. VERY CLEAR. It’s those little things that go without saying in your “from” that we didn’t even know we had to explain living here in Denmark. Until we did. Now we do. As it turns out cultural proclivities and assumptions work both ways. Duh.
Here are the following things that we have learned one needs to CLARIFY very specifically when inviting Danes to a gathering at your home:
1. WHEN IS THE PARTY?
Are you talking AM and PM? Or a 24-hour CLOCK?
This seems quite simple. But as it turns out – more times than not – I have had to clarify this. First off, Danes work on a 24-hour clock. They don’t use AM and PM. This is actually true across much of Europe. To me, this is military time. My dad being a full-bird Colonel in the U.S. Army, I’ve grown up with military time. And I have gotten used to explaining a meeting time this way over the last two and half years living in Denmark. But when I invited people for wine and cheese at 8:00 early on, they were curious and a little suspicious about our drinking tendencies. I mean, to be honest, an average Danish brunch could definitely call for a mimosa OR two. But really – 08:00 seems early. But when you truly mean 20:00 (your 8:00 pm) now they’re clear. And Danes are IN.
SEND OUT DATES IN ADVANCE, WAY IN ADVANCE
Your “when is the party” answer also has to include advance notice of said party. Like MONTHS in advance notice. Danes are very social. And good planners. Their calendars are marked and covered well ahead of time. Or so it seems. ESPECIALLY in December. With the prevalence of Julefrokosts (the annual company Christmas lunch) and Christmas parties and Julemarkeds and choir concerts and the like, you MUST give 2-3 months advance notice to your date if you hope to have any people prioritizing YOUR party come December. I thought this was a laugh. A good Danish friend warned us. Good god? Really? REALLY. We found out the hard way and experienced a 30% acceptance rate to our first December gathering. We still had fun. But I didn’t believe it until it was TRUE.
When to show up:
Is it a Hard Start Time or Open House?
Most Danes translate a posted party start time as the time you are supposed to arrive. ME? (See above) I read that as a soft start. I put it on the calendar. I show up when it works. Now, if it is clearly a sit-down dinner or a performance invite, I will prioritize the start time appropriately. Of course, I do. I’m not a savage. But a cocktail party or a wine night or a birthday gathering – isn’t that a little more flexible? For a Dane? NO. No, it is not. How many times have I heard “Where have you been?” “Are you ok?” “Why are you late?” “We have been waiting for you.”
And on the opposite side of the coin – expect most Danes to show up within the first 10 minutes of your designated start time. And have drinks and cake ready. Don’t worry. If you’re not quite ready, they’ll help. And you’ll be glad they’re there. But it’s go time. You said it. On the invite.
2. WHO IS INVITED?
Clarifying who you would like to attend:
Plus one? Children included?
BE SPECIFIC. Did you mean plus one? Is it ok to bring a significant other? Can they bring random extras? Or Children? Are children included? Will your children be there? So mine can come? BE VERY SPECIFIC. Especially if you are inviting people from your Danish workplace – make sure they are very clear that a significant other is included. If you meant that. It is not assumed in Denmark. Most work functions are spouse excluded. Boo, I say. What do you mean I’m not invited to the annual Christmas party? Am I not? I want to meet your co-workers! No. In fact. Spouses are culturally not expected, anticipated or encouraged. The annual Julefrokost is the time for the company to let their hair down. We don’t do that in front of spouses. Um, but that is exactly why I want to be there!
The more the merrier.
Come one come all.
Be specific. Let them know that if their friends from out of town are in town and you want to see your friend, it perfectly OK for them to bring their friends along too. Even their mother. Who lives on an island at the end of Scotland. It is ok to bring her. Seriously. I’m ok with that. The more the merrier I said. (Unless they are pompous and self-absorbed. I hate to mention it again. They are not welcome. Ever. Unless you didn’t know that until after you brought them. Plead ignorance. I won’t judge.)
3. WHAT WILL BE SERVED?
Is food involved:
Direct translation: Will there be cake? And/OR beer?
Danes need to know. Will there be a meal? If so, then the start time is VERY specific. See #1. Hard start. Danes like dinner parties. They also like lunch dates and very much like brunches. I have been invited to celebrate many birthdays over brunch while living here. I personally have never hosted a party that begins in the morning. Maybe because I’m not a morning person myself. Don’t get me wrong. I will happily come to celebrate you at your morning birthday gathering. Invite me! I just won’t be organizing one. Too much work too early. But a dinner party, that I can happily get behind. Mostly though, I’m an open house, bring something to share, nibbles and toasting kind of host. Be clear.
Let them eat cake:
Always have cake.
I hate to bash it in, but remember, if inviting Danes, be specific. Outline it clearly in the invite. Especially for a birthday party. The immediate expectation is that – THERE WILL BE CAKE. I have spoken before about the Danes love of kage. Cake.
This love isn’t without merit. Danes make a dang good cake. I’m partial to the Moroccan orange cake at Det Rene Brød down the street. My eldest loves the traditional lagkage (layer cake) that Danes serve at every birthday. Covered with tiny Danish flags. Requisite.
Me? I love making cake. A beautiful from-scratch cake of the birthday recipient’s choosing. But normally, I would reserve this special cake for our private celebration. Just for our family. Maybe extended family if they are available. I may be alone in this. In Denmark for sure. In our family custom, we would make or buy a separate treat (a character cake or cupcakes) to share with our childrens’ “kid birthday” party or at school. And the real (read … homemade) cake would be a more intimate affair, shared only with close family and friends. In Denmark? Make lots of cake.
How to serve the cake:
Raise a glass, make a toast, sing a song
In Denmark, you make cake for everyone. You ALWAYS serve cake. And what time will the cake be served? The specific answer to this I have not quite mastered. There it is. There is the cake. You are welcome to it. Do you want some? Jump on in. Enjoy. OH NO. YOU need to start the cake. With some semblance of a ceremony. Or toasts. Usually ceremony and toasts. And singing. Then WE can enjoy. But I don’t WANT cake yet. I’m chatting and enjoying the present company. But YOU have to START the KAGE. NOW. Ok. OK. NOW we have CAKE. Now. Ok! Skål!
4. WHAT TO WEAR?
Are we supposed to dress up:
Little black dress? Suits and ties? Short skirts?
Again. Be specific. Is it cocktail dress? What does that even mean? To me. I don’t really care. Whatever you feel comfortable in. I personally like getting my fancy on every once in awhile. I don’t have many opportunities to do so in my everyday life. I’m a mom. I’m a blogger. I work from home. You don’t wear LBD’s or heels for any of those roles very often. I’ll be honest – I still don’t wear heels very often. And if I do – I always carry a backup up pair of something I can bike or walk home in later that night. Besides heels and Copenhagen cobblestones can provide concurrent challenges. I do love Swedish clogs though. They can usually handle the cobbles.
Is there a theme involved:
Who doesn’t love an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party?
So what to wear? I will let you in on a secret. If you know me – it’s not a huge revelation. I LOVE a good themed party. I love when that theme is something tongue in cheek and ultimately disarming. Something that equalizes people. When what you are wearing starts conversations and breaks the ice. For example, when we’re all wearing tacky ugly Christmas sweaters (jumpers) no one questions how much that sweater costs or what fancy shop it came from. Suddenly we’re all just having a good time. Everyone just enjoys. That gold lamé Snoopy dog under a tinseled christmas tree just might be the WORST sweater on tonight. In this scenario WORST = BEST. YOU WIN. But I was having too much fun to remember to hand out the prizes I bought for the best. I will remember you. In best party histories. So far, I have yet to successfully host a full-on themed party here in Copenhagen. For some reason, it is a little more complicated. It’s not just the Danes. The expats need very specific instructions on this too. I haven’t given up hope yet. Just need my supply of ugly sweaters. In a box in my mom’s garage in Oregon.
5. KEEP ASKING?
Can no one come this time?
Don’t worry. Ask again. Maybe next time.
Seriously. Keep asking. One time, after all of those asks? They will say yes. And it will be a blast. They will relax. Open up and let you in. And once you are in. YOU ARE IN. With a Dane. With most anyone really. It’s human nature right? Keep asking. Have a gathering. Have a birthday party. Host a book share. Create a stitch and bitch. Eat cake. Drink wine. Don’t drink. Host a cooking club. Don’t cook. Invite cooks in. Invite 5. Invite 55. Maybe 15 will come. Maybe all 55 will. I guarantee that more will say yes to come in January. I promise. Everyone needs something to do in January in Denmark. Just be clear. On your invite. Or don’t. And see what happens. It will be a learning experience and entertaining nonetheless. It will be your own story to tell at the next party. Just me? I don’t think so.
Tillykke med fødselsdagen! I wish I could invite you all to celebrate! I want my old friends and new friends to meet each other. Come to Denmark. Let’s celebrate. Each other. Cheers to another year! More adventures and new friends. Skål.
Love from Copenhagen, Erin
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