There are many memories of the of the “old country” etched in my mind, but none perhaps as fond as those of Christmas spent with loved ones, tucked away, as we usually were, in a little white-plastered country cottage topped with a thatched roof, and nestled idyllically among the gently rolling hills of Denmark
I was only twelve years old when my family sailed the ‘great ocean’ to Canada but the past fourty some years have assured that my “Canadianization “is complete, and yet every year on the twenty fourth of December, a wave of Christmas nostalgia covers me like a fuzzy warm blanket and makes me yearn for those gone but not forgotten times and places.
Christmas in Denmark, as seen through the eyes of a child, was as much a time of suspense and wonder then, as it is to any child anywhere in the world today. However the special things that perpetuate the everlasting happiness inside me were the little things that went into the preparation of Christmas then.
One of the first signs was of mother getting out all her cookie tins from their storage places, and rummaging in the bookshelves for her recipes for ‘Klejner’. This is a special cookie which was prepared in most Danish households for the festive season. I shall not belabour you with a recipe, although it can be found on most recipe sites for Danish food, but the preparation is unique.
The dough is rolled very thin, usually no more then a couple of millimeters thick, and then cut into little strips ten to twelve centimeters long and two to three centimeters wide, each end of this strip of dough is cut pointed. A slit is made in the centre of these pieces and one of the pointed ends (of the strip) is folded through the centre slit in a pretzel like fashion. The cookies are then deep fried to a golden brown in cooking fat (palmin) and laid out on large pieces of brown paper to cool and drip of excess fat.
My sister and I “helped” mother make hundreds of Klejner.
During the baking the whole house had the delightful aroma of a very large cookie jar making it nearly impossible not to devour every dainty morsel right then and there, but mothers stern tones of “don’t touch they are for Christmas” would save them, except then she would usually add “well just one, but mind you don’t burn yourself and take one from the first ones made.” Strange how we were never that hungry at dinner time on the day we baked Klejner.
Another sure sign of Christmas was when mother announced that it was time to make the tree decorations. Brightly coloured sheets of glossy paper were spread all over the dining room table, designs and patterns were studied and agreed upon.
Much cutting, gluing and braiding of these papers produced, with careful guidance from mother, the most beautiful little hearts and baskets, which would later be filled with candy, and then hung on the Christmas tree.
Each child always had their own Christmas Calendar, with twenty four little windows or doors to open in sequence starting the first of December and ending with the biggest window on the twenty-fourth. Each morning it was a big race for us children, to see who could find and open the right window first and then excitedly, tell mother what picture was behind it.
In Denmark, the big event is the evening of the twenty-fourth and during the day there are certain traditional things which must be performed.
You must bind a large sheaf of wheat on a pole and place it outside for the birds to eat.
You must also appease the “House Gnomes” who reside in the attic.
This is done by placing a large earthenware bowl full of steaming hot rice porridge in the attic, assuring yourself of a peaceful Christmas Eve, with no ‘tricks’ from the Gnomes.
Mother always told us she did this early in the morning so not to wake the sleeping Gnomes and as we kids were not allowed in the attic I could never be sure if in fact the porridge was ever placed there, but we did usually have the sheaf of grain for the birds.
While mother was always busy in the kitchen most of the twenty fourth, she would still have enough time to get us kids dressed in our Sunday best and walk, with us and the neighbours, to the little white village church for the traditional Christmas Service.
By the time we would get back from church it was getting dark and usually we were ushered in the back door, told to go wash up and change and “Don’t look into the living room”.
Dinner of succulent roast goose, candied tiny potatoes, pickled red cabbage, and rich gravy awaited our return to the dining room. This was followed by my all-time favorite “Ris á lámande”, a rice pudding mixed with liberal amounts of whipping cream and smothered with whole cherries in a sweet sauce.
An extra little surprise was a single whole almond hidden somewhere in the “Ris á lámande”. Whoever found it receive a special prize, usually a chocolate covered marzipan pig. Strange how it was one of us kids that always ‘found’ this special almond.
After dinner it was finally time to open the presents. Father would stand up and with a stern voice proclaim: “No presents before the dishes are washed ”But the ensuing aaaahhhhh’s would always ‘melt his heart’ and we would all proceed to the living room, where he had spent the afternoon, while we were in church, decorating our tree.
The tree was without a doubt the most breathtaking event of the day.
It was always placed close to the centre of the room and while the rest of the room was in total darkness the tree was lit, by what seemed to our young eyes, a ‘hundred’ live white candles, all sparkling among the “Fairy Gossamer” adorning the tree and casting shadows on the coloured hearts and baskets we had made earlier, now filled with all sorts of goodies. A large silver star encircling a small candle topped this magical sight and a string of small Danish flags draped the tree from top to bottom with the ends dangling down onto the brightly wrapped presents under the tree.
Before we could get to the presents however, we all joined hands and while slowly circling the tree we sang the old traditional Christmas Carols like generations before us had done. After the singing, mother would place herself near the bottom of the tree and proceed to distribute the presents.
The following pandemonium was no different then, as it is in every household today, whether it be performed on the eve of the twenty fourth or the morning of the twenty fifth or any other time according to customs.
At the end it was again the voice of father who now announced that we had been up long enough and it was time for him and mother to get a little piece and quiet.
No amount of ohs’ and ahs’ could change his mind this time and so we ended up being tucked into our beds with the warm ‘goose-down’ duvets and yet another wonderful memory locked away in our hearts.