Dance around the Christmas tree
Although Denmark is Germany’s closest northern neighbour, evidence of the differences between the two cultures and mentality of the people is all around. An important concept in Danish society is, for example, ‘hyggen’ – a word which can’t be translated exactly into German or English. A Dane can ‘hyggen’ alone, with another person, or even in groups. The main requirement with ‘hyggen’ is that each person is happy and enjoys themselves. You can ‘hyggen’ alone with a book in the park, while visiting a museum with friends, or at a cozy evening dinner party gathering. The feel-good factor is the main aim and if you meet again at some later date, the Dane will thank you for the last meeting (‘tak for sidst!’) and feel encouraged by how ‘hyggeligt’ the get-together was.
I have twice had the pleasure of celebrating Christmas with my girlfriend’s family on the Danish island of Bornholm. I’d been warned in advance that it’s an old Danish custom to dance around the Christmas tree, holding hands, on Christmas Eve. What I’d taken for a joke in fact turned out to be reality, and so to avoid making a faux pas, I danced, beaming all over my face, with the whole family (including Granny) around the tree and sang, rather badly, Danish Christmas carols. I was rather astonished at the ubiquitous Christmas goblins (‘Nisse’ in Danish), in the form of little puppets and figurines, who were smirking at me from all corners of the room. I still wonder today whether my girlfriend’s parents ever found all the ‘Nisse’ again, there were so many of them. The Danes also have the same typical Christmas nativity scene we have in Germany, but it plays more of a supporting role to the goblins.
In general I find the Danes are more optimistic and relaxed than the Germans. If you mention problems, the focus will immediately be on possible solutions and not, as is usual in Germany, on pondering the complexities of the problem. The conversation usually ends with ‘det skal nok gå!’ (that’ll sort itself out!). This forward-looking view can be extremely helpful with problem-solving, especially when you are the owner of a more contemplative German soul.
As a German in Denmark people are always talking to you about ‘92’. Indeed, even I had problems at first, trying to make out what was implied by this date. Was I suppressing something, or had I forgotten? A reminder: in 1992 the total outsiders, Denmark, beat the world champions Germany 2:0 in the finals of the European Football Championship - and the Danes are still dining out on this… OK, let them indulge!
Another thing which is striking to the German ex-pat is the behaviour of the Danes towards their national flag, the ‘Dannebrog’. You can tell that someone has a birthday by spotting the numerous Danish mini-flags on the kitchen table, standing next to the classic ‘Lagkage’ (a layered biscuit and fruit cake). If a member of the Danish royal family has a birthday the Copenhagen buses drive their passengers to their destinations, bearing little flags designed for cars. In particular, Danes living in the countryside hoist their flags up on national holidays. According to the custom, they have to be brought in by sundown and mustn’t ever touch the ground. The Dannebrog seems to be almost holy to many of the Danes. To a German this seems an unusual way of dealing with the national flag.
Not everything that glitters is gold, and that’s also true of Denmark. You become aware of its shortcomings when, for example, you sometimes have to wait for months for a medical examination, or have to put up with the bad weather. It rarely gets very hot in the summer and the winter seems to last two months longer than it does in Germany. But when you live in Denmark, you get an idea of why the Danes are reckoned to be the happiest people in the world. It’s contagious!
Translation by Annemarie Goodridge
Peter Pfeifer has lived and worked in Copenhagen since 2008. He previously studied Psycholgy, Politics and Media Studies in Trier, Bremen and Berlin. In 2011 he moved back to Berlin where he was the Producer of various documentaries including the ARD documentary: "Deutschland, deine Künstler: Günter Grass".
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Denmark