Monday, 7 December 2015

English Christmas vs. Danish Jul - Calendars and Elves


I grew up with a blend of national influences. My dad is English but was born in Nigeria. My mum is Danish and was born in England. I was born in Germany and lived there for a lot of my childhood, but I speak very little German. I never really thought that my family’s Christmas decorations or routine were any different to anyone else’s, but as I’ve got older, or had English friends over while our advent gear is up, I’ve noticed some key differences between traditional English Christmas and the Danish Jul.

Advent Calendars
In England you have flimsy cardboard boxes with puny plasticky chocolates inside that you get really rather disproportionately excited about. Perhaps I’m biased against these because I’ve only ever had one, and someone at my boarding school snuck into the office and ate all my chocolates in the dead of night, but that’s just speculation. I know some brands do fancy-schmancy ones with luxury products in them but these tend to be pricey and certainly aren’t the norm.

In Denmark we have Christmas calendars which, frankly, are the absolute boss kings when it comes to the Christmas countdown. These behemoths of Christmas cheer are big wall-mounted fabric fandangos which are reused every year and are usually passed down through families. As it happens, my mum actually made mine and my brothers’ herself, by hand. They have little rings on each day from the 1st to the 24th, to which Santa’s elves (the nisser – more about them later) attach small gifts, increasing in size/value up to the big day. Danish calendars win this one, hands down.

England – 0        Demark – 1

The Lore
Please bear in mind, I may not have got all of this 100% right as I’m only reporting what I’ve been told by my mum who has been known to unintentionally mistranslate things, so I apologise to any Danes who might be reading this, just in case!

In England you have Father Christmas or the Americanised Santa Claus, who rides around the planet on Christmas night with his reindeer, delivering presents at supersonic speed. He’s beardy, wears red and employs elves to do all the hard labour. There seems to be some variation among households as to whether he leaves presents in stockings, shoes or under the tree. You leave out treats for him (in my house, that’s usually mince pies, milk and a carrot for Rudolph) and if you’ve been bad he might leave you coal instead of gifts.

In Denmark, we have the nisser/nissermen, which aren’t entirely unlike the trolls from Frozen, if you need a point of reference. They live in attics or barn rafters and are kind of unruly. If little things go wrong in your house, or you stub your toe or tread on Lego you blame the nissermen. They are also responsible for filling up your Christmas calendar. You leave out rice pudding and seeds to get on their good side.


The nissermen are pre-Christian but were adopted into Christmas when paganism declined. Father Christmas is sort of present in the modern Danish Christmas, but he was only introduced on the late 19th Century when Danish-American emigrants sent Christmas cards home with American Christmas imagery. Personally, I prefer the idea of nissermen because the idea of a personal house elf kind of appeals to me, and the idea of an old bearded man inviting himself into my house under cover of darkness has a touch of the Yewtree about it. All jokes aside, the nissermen are just far more practical, in a magical pixie sort of way. Denmark wins again.

England – 0        Denmark – 2 

Next time we're looking at the important bit - the food! Stay tuned!


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