A Danish Christmas
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A Danish ChristmasJust spin theuniverse right round,
just turneverything upside down,
the earth as well -for it is false and hollow -
but do not touch myChristmastide...
Thus the secular poetof Danish Christmas, Peter Faber (1810-77) celebrates Christmas in 1850 in thecarol Sikken voldsom trcengsel og alarm
(What a great throng and noise):a vivid and moving picture of provincial Copenhagen at the time. Faber, adirector of a telegraph company by day, makes reference to traditions and oldvalues. Together, these shape the celebration of an 'average' Danish Christmas,which he would not change for all the world. Yet many of these 'traditions'were recent innovations, often borrowed from Sweden and Germany, quicklyadopted as their own and given their own Danish colour. The Christmas tree, arecent introduction from Denmark's neighbour to the south, that was slow togain a secure place in Danish homes, was often decorated with strings of littleDanish flags, red and white Christmas elves and dozens of candles. In fact inScandinavia Christmas is a festival of light. Since ancient times, whenChristmas was a pagan feast linked to midwinter in January, the Scandinavianshave, in contrast to the Anglo-Saxons and southern Europeans, celebrated onChristmas Eve with a lavish family meal of rice pudding and beer, followed byroast pork, roast duck or stuffed goose, caramelised potatoes, red cabbage,jelly and other good things. After the meal, but before the guests leave thetable, the candles on the tree are lit, the assembled company join hands anddance around the tree. But the dancing would be unthinkable without carols. Inanother of Faber's popular and atmospheric portrayals of the middle-class home:From the top of thegreen tree comes the call
Look little child,all is well,
you know how tomarch,
let little Sine
have her Christmasgift.
The words demand thatthe song is sung whilst marching around the tree, awakening the impatience ofthe youngest children for material goods, the presents, which are undeniablycentral to a modern Christmas.
Yet it is at this time that most Danes comeinto contact with what are, for many, undoubtedly the most treasured carols. Ofcourse one can go to church on Christmas Eve and sing there, but on the onehand church-going is not that prevalent amongst today's somewhat religiouslyambivalent Danes, and on the other you cannot choose what is sung in church.
You can at home, and Danish families have personal favourites, often in aspecific order, from which they rarely deviate. Most often the religious carolscome first, and among these we find the great Danish hymnists.
First and foremost N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872) with the well-known Delkimer nu til Julefest
(Bells ring out for the Christmas Feast), Velkommenigen Guds engle sm?Ñ
('Welcome again, God's little angels'), Et barn erf?©dt i Betlehem
('A child is born in Bethlehem'). Vcer velkommen Herrens?Ñr
('We welcome our Lord's new year') is almost an official proclamation ofthe new church year. Blomstre som en roseng?Ñrd
('Blossom shall thewilderness') is one of Grundtvig's most important texts, set to J. P. E.
Hartmann's (1805-1900) congenial, but much later melody. It has been called thesong of unreasonable hope, in which Isaiah foretells the coming of the Lord,when all good things will come to pass:Let no limb falter,
let not one hand fall,
let every tree sprout forth
and every wrinkle be smoothed,
let fallen courage rise up,
let blood flow free
and fear and sorrow disappear!
H. A. Brorson (1694-1764) was a great poet of the pietist movement withstrong verse that described the relationship between Jesus and man in elaborateand sometimes erotic terms. Her kommer Jesus dine sm?Ñ
('Here come yourlittle ones, Jesus') or Den yndigste rose er funden
('The fairest roseis found'), in which the poet likens our Saviour to a rose that God allowed tobloom, never to be lost again.
Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75) also contributed with Barn Jesus i en krybbe l?Ñ
(TheJesus child lay in a manger), in which the celebrated author perhaps does notmake full use of his talent, yet he offers an honest portrayal of the pious,simple faith of a child.
Finally mention shouldbe made of B. S. Ingemann (1789-1862), who despite being somewhat overshadowedby Grundtvig, is, in the minds of many, the
Christmas poet, with carolssuch as Dejlig er jorden
('How fair is the earth'), Glade jul
('MerryChristmas', to the tune of Gruber's Stille Nacht),
and his masterpiece Julenhar bragt velsignet bud
('Christmas has brought a blessed message') with amelody by C. E. F. Weyse (1774-1842), Ingemann's favoured composer. At itsheart the intense verse portrays a child dancing on its mother's lap. The childrelates the good news about our Saviour, who, like us was once a child. Theadult is brought down to a baby's level - and this in an age when children werewidely regarded as simply incomplete adults. The poet promises that the Gardenof Eden awaits and that death is therefore not so terrible. Christmas Eve islike paradise that awaits us, when things look darkest. A simple and pious ideathat Ingemann returned to in the last poem he wrote before his death, in whichthe doors are opened to reveal the Christmas tree with its lights (we take itas read that there will be singing), a sign of eternity.And the doors arefinally flung wide
and they know, that the Christ child
has brought his Christmas gift.
And they see - whatthey believed -
there stands the garden of the Christmas tree.
Ingemann, and muchthat came after him, have proved to be unpalatable to certain more dogmatictheologians. The Danes and Ingemann have strayed far from the traditionalChristmas message. The Danish Christmas is now 'nice' and 'comfortable' andsomewhat food-obsessed, according to one high-ranking member of the Danishchurch.
Despite this Ingemannis here to stay. For the sake of completeness it should be stated that when theDanes dance around the tree, more than a few have to resort to song sheets withthe most popular carols, which can either be bought at the local bookshop orwhich often come free with packs of Christmas lights. Unlike the children ofFaber's day, few have the verses drilled into them at school and remember themwhen they grow up.
But they do sing.
English version:Andrew Smith
A Danish Christmas