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Festivals of Western Europe, by Dorothy Gladys Spicer, [1958], at


NYTARSDAG (New Year's Day) January 1

    In towns and cities throughout Denmark the New Year marks the beginning of one of the most important social events in the calendar. Men and women attend church services and later call on relatives and friends to wish them a Happy New Year. The conventional call lasts for about a half hour and the customary refreshments consist of wine and small cookies. The exchange of visits is carried on for about a fortnight.

HELLIG-TRE-KONGERS-DAG (Day of the Three Holy Kings) January 6

    Hellig-Tre-Kongers-Dag, the twelfth day after Christmas, brings the festive season to an official end. The Christmas tree is dismantled, all greens are taken from the house and the Christmas ornaments packed away for another year.

    This is the night when young girls traditionally play fortunetelling games. One time-honored method for a girl to decide her fate is to walk backward, throw a shoe over her left shoulder and pray the Holy Kings to reveal the future. The man who subsequently appears in her dreams will be her future husband.

FJORTENDE FEBRUAR (Fourteenth of February) February 14

    On this day school children exchange friendship tokens, which consist of pressed snowdrops accompanied by original verses. The sender signs the gaekkebrev, or joking letter, with a series of dots--one dot standing for each letter in the name. When the boy who receives the gaekkebrev guesses the sender's name correctly, the girl is expected to reward him at Easter with a chocolate or sugar egg. If, on the contrary, the boy fails to decipher the name, he is expected to pay the forfeit.

FASTELAVN (Shrovetide) The Monday preceding Ash Wednesday

    Fastelavn, the Monday preceding Ash Wednesday, is a general school holiday and one of the gayest times of year for boys and girls. Everybody celebrates the day by eating Fastelavnsboller, or Shrovetide buns, which are as important in youthful games and customs as in festive adult menus.

    In some places children armed with "Lenten birches," or branches decorated with brightly colored paper flowers, rise at four or five in the morning, enter the rooms of parents or grandparents and waken them by beating the bedclothes with their switches. "Give buns, give buns, give buns," the children shout, meanwhile inflicting resounding smacks with their branches. From the mysterious depths of the covers the "sleeping" grown-ups always produce the traditional Fastelavnsboller (and sometimes even candy), with which the youthful tormentors customarily are rewarded. Possibly this custom survives from ancient times when the "Easter smacks," delivered in many lands at this season, were regarded as part of an early spring purification rite.

    In both town and rural communities older children dress up in fancy costumes and fantastic masks and make neighborhood rounds, singing for buns and rattling collection boxes:

Buns up, buns down,
Buns for me to chew!
If no buns you give
I'll rattle till you do!

chant the youngsters, jingling the boxes in which they collect coins for a Fastelavn feast.

    At this season there are many parties at which children play different kinds of bun games. A favorite stunt is to suspend a bun from the chandelier by a string. Everybody takes turns at trying to get a bite of the tempting morsel when the string is set in motion. The one who succeeds gets the bun as prize.

    An old Danish Shrovetide game which adults play extensively even in modern times, is called Sla Katten al Tonden, or "knocking the cat out of the barrel." Often an artificial cat (originally a live one) is enclosed in a suspended wooden barrel--decorated with paper flowers, painted with cat pictures. Each player, armed with a wooden stick, takes a mighty swing at the barrel. The one succeeding in smashing it is proclaimed "Cat King" and receives a prize.

    In some Danish seaport towns the Fastelavn boat is a feature of the season's festivities. A great boat manned by twelve seamen is placed on a truck drawn by several horses and paraded through the streets. Horn players sit beside the driver. A seaman carrying the national flag announces the approach of the truck, which is followed by members of the Seamen's Guild.

    The unique procession halts frequently during its progress through the town. "The ship is coming! The ship is coming!" shout the townsfolk. The musicians play and the men dance. Contributions are collected for sick and needy seamen.

PASKE (Easter)

    After the Easter morning services the day is spent quietly at home. For children Easter means eggs to eat and eggs for games. In South Jutland boys and girls rise early and hunt in the garden for "hare's nests." When found, the children shriek with joy since the hares have a way of leaving not only dyed hens' eggs but eggs of chocolate and sugar which sometimes are decorated with delectable pink and yellow frosting roses. In some places children have contests with dyed eggs, which they roll down hill. The boy or girl whose egg goes the longest distance without breaking wins his opponent's egg and retains his own.

ANDEN PASKEDAG (Second Easter Day) The day after Easter

    This is a general holiday. Stores are closed and in the cities all places of amusemetit, such as theatres, concert halls, clubs and restaurants, are crowded to capacity.

VALBORGSAFTEN (Walpurgis Eve) April 30

    In Jutland, bonfires are built on the hilltops on Walpurgis Eve, for this is the time when superstitious folk say witches and demons ride broomsticks through the air to hold rendezvous with the Devil at the Brocken, in the Harz. According to old belief, the lighted fires prevent the evil spirits from stopping on their way and harming man and beast. Be this as it may, the bonfires make a happy excuse for merrymaking on May Day Eve. Old and young dance and sing about the fires which, incidentally, serve to dispose of a great deal of useless trash accumulated during the winter months.

    Customs vary from parish to parish. In most places, Saint John's or Midsummer, rather than Watpurgis Eve, is the traditional time for building bonfires.

STORE BEDEDAG (Great Prayer Day) The fourth Friday after Easter

    This day of prayer dates back to the time of Christian VII, when his worldly Prime Minister, Count Johann Friedrich von Struensee, decided upon one great day of prayer as a substitute for the many holy days which the Church observed.

    Bells in every church announce the eve of Store Bededag. In olden days it was customary for Copenhagen burghers to greet the spring by putting on new clothes and strolling along the city ramparts. Then they went home and ate varme hveder, a kind of small square wheat bread, served piping hot. Today people still eat the traditional bread. They still dress in spring finery but, instead of walking along the ramparts, they promenade on the famous Langelinie, or boulevard which faces Copenhagen's water front.

    On Store Bededag stores and places of business are closed and special church services held.

PINSE (Pentecost, or Whitsun) The fiftieth day after Easter

    Pentecost or Whitsun is the great spring holiday. For weeks beforehand housewives are scrubbing, scouring and putting everything to rights. Tailors are busy, too, because Whitsun is the traditional time for new summer clothes. Since beech trees are beginning to bud at this season many Copenhagen residents go by bicycle to woods and forests and gather armfuls of tender young branches. These boughs are used to decorate the houses--in symbol of welcome to early spring.

    According to an old folk saying, "the sun dances on Pinse morning." Townsfolk, as well as country people rise at dawn to witness this miracle. In Copenhagen it is customary to get up early and go to Frederiksberg hill to watch the sun rise and "see it dance." According to custom, coffee, which is served in the garden, must be on the table by six o'clock, although the sun is up long before that hour.

    Anden Pinsedag, or Whit Monday, is a general holiday. People make excursions to the woods for picnics or go to rural restaurants for an outdoor party and a good country meal, followed by dancing and singing. Indeed, singing is an important feature of most celebrations, as this is the day when singing society members, accompanied by wives and children, make all kinds of rural expeditions.

SANKT HANS AFTEN (Saint John's Eve) June 23

    Midsummer Eve--the longest night in the year--is universally celebrated with merrymaking, rejoicing and building enormous fires on the hills. Folk dancing, speeches and singing make this night a memorable occasion for young and old.

    Often bonfires are topped by old tar barrels or other inflammable materials. Sometimes, also, the effigy of a witch (doubtless a pagan symbol of Winter or Death) crowns the immense pile of wood and rubbish. As flames mount, lighting the sky for miles about, the pre-Christian drama of the conquest of darkness by light is unconsciously reenacted; for on Midsummer Day the sun reaches its highest point in the heavens.

    In coast hamlets blazing fires are made along the shore, and people going out in boats to view the bonfires sing romantic songs in honor of the beautiful summer night.

MORTENSAFTEN (Saint Martin's Eve) November 10

    Saint Martin's Eve, coming at the season when crops are gathered and geese are fat, is celebrated in the homes with a family dinner. Harvest foods and roast goose, traditional to the occasion, are eaten in many homes.

    As one informant explained, "Legend says Saint Martin was hiding in a barn when a stupid goose gave his presence away by quacking. That's why the bird lost his neck and we eat him on Mortensaften!"

JULEAFTEN (Christmas Eve) December 24

    Christmas, the season of good will and rejoicing, is the greatest holiday in the Danish calendar. For weeks in advance farmers' wives turn their houses upside down in a frenzy of floor scrubbing, brass polishing, laying in huge supplies and baking dozens of traditional cakes, cookies and fancy breads. On "Little Christmas Eve," December 23, it is customary in many places to make enough apple fritters to last over the next three days.

    Farmers are busy, too, since they must tidy up everything outdoors as well as in the barns and stables. Horses, cows and sheep all receive extra food and care for, according to ancient folk belief, the manger animals stand at midnight in honor of Jesus' birth. A sheaf of grain, tied to a pole and erected in the garden, provides holiday fare for the wild birds. Even city apartment dwellers do not forget to tie bunches of grain to the balconies at this season.

    In couutry places the farmer traditionally makes the sign of the cross over ploughs and harrows and places them under cover. Should the "Shoemaker of Jerusalem" or, as some say, the Wandering Jew, find any unblessed or uncovered implements lying about, he would sit down and rest, thus bringing bad luck to the farmer.

    The explanition of this Superstition is found in an old Danish legend which says that Jesus, when carrying his heavy cross to Calvary paused to rest at a shoemaker's door. "Go on faster, go on faster!" ordered the shoemaker, pointing to the road. "I shall go on," replied Jesus looking at the man, "but thou, thou shalt wander until I return."

    Folk say that for more than twenty centuries now the Shoemaker of Jerusalem has wandered across Denmark's icy fields on Christmas Eve, searching in vain for an unblessed plough. Should he succeed in finding one he could stop and rest, his wanderings over forever; for then, according to peasant tradition, the shoemaker's curse would be transferred to the godless farmer.

    Thus far no Danish farmer has forgotten to bless his plough, nor has he left it carelessly lying about. But on Christmas Eve as the church bells strike twelve, people say they can hear the Wandering Jew wailing across the heath before he disappears for another twelve months.

    At four or five on Christmas Eve the village bells start ringing joyously and everyone goes to church. Later people return home to feast and make merry within the family circle. Houses are gaily ornamented with red and white candles, the Dannebrog, or Danish flag (with its white cross on a red background) and, of course, the Christmas tree--a young spruce with evergreen needles, the symbol of everlasting life. The tree is always a beautiful sight with its decorations of red and white wax papers, fancy cookies, stilning stars and little colored bags of sweets. In addition, there are plenty of small Danish flags, bright tinsel and delightful homemade ornaments.

    Christmas Eve Supper, usually served at six o'clock, is the high point of the holiday. Traditionally the meal starts with risengrod, or rice porridge, which has cinnamon on top and a big butter "eye" in the center. The exciting feature of the risengrod is thee whole almond inside. Whoever finds this coveted morsel in his portion receives a prize, such as a marzipan fruit, or some other trifle. Of course, the merriment and suspense are increased when the finder does not disclose his luck until everyone else has consumed his last grain of rice.

    The rice pudding is followed by a wonderful array of foods, chief of which is the roast goose, adorned with small Danish flags and stuffed with apples and prunes. Browned potatoes, red cabbage and currant jelly accompany the bird, while rich apple cake, fruits and nuts follow for dessert.

    After dinner and a hearty "Tak for mad," "Thanks for the meal" to the head of the family, old and young go to the adjoining room, join hands, and dance about the Christmas tree.

    "It's Christmas again, Christmas again," sing the merry dancers, "And Christmas lasts till Easter!" Then follows the rueful refrain, "It isn't true! It isn't true! Lent comes in between!"

    Christmas carols follow. At last it is present time. Often the youngest child hands out the gifts, which are piled beneath the tree. After all gifts have been opened, admired and enjoyed, there are games played for spice-cake forfeits. Before bedtime there is more food--coffee, sandwiches and many different kinds of sweets.

     In olden times people always remembered the Jule-Nisse at Christmas. He was the gnome said to dwell in attic or barn. He looked after the household's welfare and was responsible for its good--or bad luck. The Jule Nisse always received a generous portion of risengrod, with an added helping of butter. Nowadays, alas, nobody seems to see Jule-Nisse. He lives on, nevertheless, in all true Danish hearts, and the brave little red-capped, grey-bearded gnome is always well represented in Christmas cards and holiday decorations.

JULEDAG (Christmas) December 25

    Christmas is spent quietly in the homes. All day, following morning church services, relatives and friends drop in to exchange greetings and good wishes.

    Throughout the holiday season hospitality is offered--and accepted--in every household. According to an old superstition, whoever enters a house at Yuletide without partaking of the family's cheer will "carry away the Christmas."

    Anden Juledag, Second Christmas Day, which follows Christmas is often celebrated by country dances at the village hall, a community Christmas tree gathering or, in towns and cities, by attendance at theatres and concerts.

NYTARSAFTEN (New Year's Eve) December 31

    Instead of "blowing in the New Year," as was customary in the past, young people now "smash it in" by bombarding people's doors, or "let it in" by setting off fireworks. Once these noisy demonstrations were intended to frighten away powers of darkness; now noise making is just part of the New Year's Eve fun.

    For months ahead boys save up worthless earthenware. On New Year's Eve they break it against the house doors of friends and neighbors. The most popular man in the town or village is he who has the greatest number of old pots and bowls smashed against his door.

    According to traditional etiquette, the master of the house rushes out and tries to catch his noisy guests, who run away after the attack. They do not run too quickly, however, because those who are caught are treated with cakes, cookies or doughnuts. The young people who explode fireworks outside the door are similarly welcomed and offered holiday cheer.

    In many parts of West Jutland the last night of the year is considered the time for all sorts of pranks and practical jokes, The farmer does well, therefore, to put everything under cover and bolt the barn door; otherwise, cart wheels may mysteriously find their way to the well and pitchforks to the rafters!

    Just at midnight church bells peal out the passing of the year. In towns and cities bands of gay masqueraders swarm through the streets. Banquets, dances, dinners and gala parties are features of the evening's entertainment. In homes throughout the land the traditional supper includes holiday boiled cod and mustard sauce, with aquavit to drink. The Christmas candles are lighted again. Laughter and merriment flow as freely as aquavit for the final night of the year is a time for relaxation and fun.

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