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Christmas in Denmark

written by: Eric W. Vogt•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 12/21/2010

If your favorite holiday is Christmas, you're Danish at heart. It is the most popular holiday in the country and one that is celebrated for longer -- not just on the 25th of December. Learn a bit more about this warm country in a cold place...

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    Christmas in Denmark

    The Danes love Christmas. You could even say that they loved Christmas before they were Christian! Since this holiday falls at the darkest time of year, the Danes were already celebrating -- or rather supplicating Odin, the chief of the Norse pantheon. In those pre-Christan days, the Norse would light fires and candles around the winter solstice to ask Odin to bring back the longer days, which he always did, of course.

    One of the more interesting cultural artifacts that have adhered to the Christmas season, along with Santa Claus (who is unsurprisingly a bit like Odin) are the nisser (singular is nisse). They are all male (they must be immortal!), short creatures, a bit like dwarves. They are tricksters, and often claim to be Santa -- but they aren't very good at fooling a Dane - or Danish children. It's all part of the fun. Like Santa, they too need snacks, but they don't leave presents -- but don't neglect to feed them or you could be in for trouble!

    The origin of the nisser are to be found in the ancient belief in ancestral spirits who return home around the time of the winter solstice or Jul season (whence the English word Yule) to check on things, to be sure everyone is doing their job to keep house and home together. Candles or fires are lit to keep them away. Although some Danes might tell you that if you have fewer lights lit, you might see one. It depends on whether you are worried about them coming or want them to come, I suppose.

    The Danes begin celebrating in earnest at the beginning of Advent, when the first of four candles is lit. One more candle is lit each Sunday until all four are glowing and Christmas eve, or Juleaften, is about to arrive.

    The Danes can proudly claim one great world-wide distinction: the invention of Christmas seals -- the stamps that raise money to fight lung disease, tuberculosis in particular. In 1903, a humble postal worker in Denmark, named Einar Holboell, got the idea to start the custom which has spread around the world. Learn more here about Christmas in Denmark.