Hygge and debauchery : A very Danish Christmas

Pork, candles, schnapps, beer, more pork, more schnapps, hands where they shouldn't be, drunk driving. Welcome to the Danish Julefrokost

In early November, invitations to traditional Danish Christmas meals start to trickle into inboxes. First it’s your office, then one arrives from your mate’s indoor soccer team, next your old high school friends organise a get together – some Danes will have commitments to these often-raucous occasions every weekend in the run-up to Christmas. Because in Denmark, the Christmas spirit isn’t restricted to a present-opening spree on a late-December morning. It’s a month-long booze-and-food fuelled marathon.

The festive season kicks off on J-Day, a Friday in November when Carlsberg releases its Christmas beer, the Julebryg. This is the starting pistol, the cue for adolescent men to don their Santa hats and start uttering incomprehensible nonsense as they stagger from one bar to the next. The vomit-stained sidewalks the next morning attest to J-Day’s reputation as the alcoholic D-Day.

It is also drunk driving season, and the police are on high alert. But the flood of akvavit is not just a danger for road users: relationships are also imperilled. One in five Danes has hooked up with a colleague at the company Christmas party, according to a survey by Avisen, and a quarter of those intimate moments were acts of infidelity. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that divorce rates jumped 70 percent between December 2012 and January 2013.

An uncivilised affair
It’s an open secret that the Julefrokost is an occasion where adultery is both expected and even somewhat acceptable. It could even be argued that some Danes, famously allergic to political correctness, rather relish the idea that the holiest time of year has become a celebration of Bacchus rather than Jesus.

But it wasn’t always this way. In the late 1940s, an employee might be invited into the boss’s office on Christmas – celebrated December 24 in Denmark – for a glass of port, a piece of marzipan, and some seasonal greetings before hastening home to be with his family. A brief party it was, but a celebration nonetheless and, in those days, a rare opportunity to bridge the gap between manager and worker. It wasn’t until the 60s that the boss actually joined the table to rub shoulders with the entire staff for lunch.

The Julefrokost remained a civilised affair until the release of the 1976 cult film Julefrokosten, which depicted (and celebrated) a “wet and wild” Christmas lunch. Life imitated art, and thereafter the celebration lost its inhibitions – bring on the binge drinking and frolicking on the copy room floor.


An exercise in nostalgia
The Julefrokost is the ideal platform to break down barriers and discover some truths about your colleagues’ private lives, so it’s not surprising that many managers choose not to attend. As the artist, actor and cultural treasure Storm P said, “you can preserve anything in alcohol, except a secret”.

The manager’s attendance at the Julefrokost has its pros and cons. On one hand, you can’t blame them for wanting to protect their reputation, lest they end up being instagrammed doing body shots off a colleague. But what is a boss if not a leader? If they won’t put on leather chaps and do the limbo, can they really expect to be considered one?

But enough about offices and drunken debauchery and back to the food – the method in the madness. It’s a carnivore’s dream. First there’s the surf. You’ll inevitably be offered a variety of pickled herring, mountains of small peeled shrimp, smoked salmon or even eel. And then comes the turf: either a beautiful roast duck or huge pork loins with crunchy, salty crackling. If you’re lucky, both.  On the side, you’ll find red cabbage and potatoes caramelised in sugar.

The meal is closed with risalamande.  The linguistically alert may collect more than ten different spellings of this dessert in the course of an ordinary December, but all are bastardisations of the French ris à l’amande, or rice pudding with chopped almonds and cherry sauce. At parties, the bowl of pudding has a whole almond hidden in it – whoever finds the almond gets a gift (usually more booze). The feast sails along, floating on copious waves of akvavit, beer and wine.

The Julefrokost’s traditional culinary spread is pure nostalgia, a heritage connecting present-day Danes with their pre-industrialised forefathers, argues food anthropologist Gry Jacobsen.

“Christmas lunches are an interesting phenomenon indeed. The food traditionally eaten at Christmas is based on the products that were available at that time of year: cereal-based foods such as bread and porridge, cabbage, conserved foods such as pickled herring, mature cheeses, and then all imaginable variations of pork meat,” explains Jacobsen.

In Viking times, Christmas festivities were celebrated in mid-January to rejoice in the arrival of longer days. In other words, it was like Game of Thrones minus the dragons and that little shit Joffrey.

Jacobsen explains that while the menu has been tweaked over the years, one element remains strong – alcohol.

“While many still serve the traditional menu, the success of the Christmas lunch depends heavily on the meal format: many small courses accompanied by drinks and often schnapps between each course. Both a mouth cleanser and social lubricant, schnapps is imperative to the Christmas lunch,” Jacobsen says, adding that globalisation has led to the introduction of new dishes to better accommodate vegetarians and non-pork eaters.

“I have even been served sushi at a Christmas lunch, so I would say the restrictions are quite loose.”

Family fun
The Christmas dinner is still a close-knit affair, however, and while some Danes will be running from party to party, newcomers may find themselves without a single invitation during the holiday period. Jacobsen does draw a distinction between the dinner and the less formal lunch, however.

“Christmas dinner is most often an exclusive event for closely-related kin, but Christmas lunch is a form of celebration which involves relations that are less tightly knit. This event offers an opportunity to get to know each other as actual human beings, instead of an individual that serves a particular role.”

So busy are some Danes that the celebrations spill into January, making the Danish Christmas season far longer than in most of the Anglo-Saxon world. But the tradition is deeply integrated into the Danish spirit and psyche. As the days get shorter, the partying gets longer. If you’re stuck indoors, you might as well eat roast pork and wash it down with beer along with your friends, family and colleagues, right? The question is, will you be up all night wondering what your partner is getting up to? M


By Carl Coleman

AN Australian sexual refugee living in Copenhagen for the past six years. Carl plays in Palace Winter.

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