On November 1st in Copenhagen, Christmas markets open their doors. Holiday lights are hung, trees are decorated, and the limited time “Julebryg” beer is released. From this day forward, the entire city of Copenhagen relishes in holiday spirit in anticipation of Christmas Day. The street lamps are covered with decorative wreaths while central squares house dozens of markets, ornate Christmas trees and Ferris wheels. Friends begin to schedule weekly Christmas lunches, called “julefrokost”, and begin baking traditional “abelskiver” donuts. This holiday countdown brings warmth, spirit, and excitement to the cold, dark months of winter.
Last fall, I spent four months in this city and was struck by how the Danes celebrated Christmas. Having spent the holiday season in cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, and Prague, I am confident that no city celebrates with the ubiquitous spirit that Copenhagen does. After visiting Denmark’s next two largest cities, Aarhus and Aalborg, it became clear this spirit was not unique to Copenhagen, but permeating throughout the entire country. I began to wonder why this was, and looked to religion as the obvious explanation. I quickly realized how wrong I was.
Despite Denmark’s near obsession with Christmas, it is one of the least religious countries in the world. While nearly three quarters of the population identifies as Christian, only 19% of the population finds religion important in their everyday lives (Gallup 2015). Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, having spent two years researching religion in Scandinavia, found that most Danes are either skeptical about the existence of a God or have rarely even thought about it (Zuckerman 2008). Only 28% of Danes believe in a God, and only 2% of church members people attend services weekly (Gallup 2015). Most Danes don’t worship Jesus, pray, or read religious texts. Why, then, is this Christian holiday so important to such a secular country?
Being religious is not a prerequisite to celebrating Christmas in Denmark. Many Danes don’t believe in the religious origin of the holiday and still celebrate it fervently (Zuckerman 2008). While the majority of Danes do attend religious services on Christmas Day, few attend for its religious content. Instead, Danes engage in this Christian ritual because it’s just what people do. Christmas is not unique in this way – most Danes marry in churches, celebrate Easter, and baptize their children because they are national rituals and important means of community involvement. Danes, rather than being traditionally religious, are culturally religious. Danes may not believe in the tenets of Christianity, but engage in these religious rituals to have fun, connect with family, and take part in their national cultural identity. Jan Lindhart, a bishop in Denmark, describes, “The Danes don’t need to go to church on Sundays because they can do their Danishness every day of the week” (Zuckerman 2008: 171). Danes don’t need church to feel Danish, because being Danish doesn’t mean being Christian. Being Danish means celebrating Christmas in its cultural context – and not its religious context.
The question then becomes, why this ritual of Christmas celebration and not other religious traditions? Baptisms, confirmations, or Easter don’t foster half as much spirit or excitement as Christmas does. This two-month extravagant celebration of Christmas means something different to the Danes. There, Christmas is not just an established communal tradition – it is a manifestation of Denmark’s value system.
If asked to describe Danish culture with one word, it would be “hygge.” This word has no direct English translation and is exclusive to Danish culture. Hygge is a feeling embedded within all aspects of life in Denmark. Hygge is comfort, coziness, and connection with others. It is the experience of enjoying family’s company or sharing dinner in a candlelit apartment. Hygge is moderation and modesty, and being hyggelit means never seeking attention or exuding wealth. Anthropologist Jeppe Linnett argues that hygge is the implicit cultural value of balance and moderation that is rooted in the nation’s cultural identity of social, economic, and political equality (Linnett 2011). This particular value may explain why Christmas, more than any other religious or cultural event, brings such thrill and excitement.
The concept of hygge carries symbolic meaning about this culture and provides residents with norms to live by. Linnett describes hygge as “a cultural reference point that all Danes relate to…and is the structuring principle of a fundamental moral order for everyday Scandinavian life” (Linett 2011: 38). Being Danish means being hyggelit, and there is nothing more hyggelit than Christmas. The lights, candles, and fireplaces are provide warmth and comfort during the dark, cold months. Families put work aside to spend time with loved ones. Friends shop at street markets for handmade gifts, never purchasing anything too extravagant and always thinking of friends before themselves. The hyggelit nature of this holiday explains why its celebration is so widespread and unique. To this secular nation Christmas is more than a holiday; it is a celebration of hygge and the great values the small word represents.
Since my semester in Copenhagen, friends have asked for advice on which months to travel there. My answer is obvious: the holiday season. To miss Christmas in Copenhagen would be to miss a true understanding of Danish culture and its intersection with secularity.