Denmark gets pretty dark in the depths of midwinter, and the run-up to Christmas tends to focus on illumination. Little flames light windows where the days of advent are marked off one by one on calendar candles, and twinkling, glowing bulbs are strung around the domestic Nordmann fir trees that form the Christmas centrepiece of almost every house.
Saint Lucia, a Christian martyr and the patron saint of light, is celebrated on 12 and 13 December, when schools and small towns may elect a teenage girl to represent Lucia with a crown-like wreath of candles placed her head.
As the home of the world’s first postal service, Denmark has also developed its own tradition of ‘Christmas seals’. These are special stamps issued each year since 1904, with limited-edition illustrations that become collectors’ items later. The present monarch Margrethe II has appeared on many of these seals since taking the throne in 1972, but has also designed her own – the queen is an accomplished artist.
The Danish Christmas luncheon, or julefrokost, occupies most of Christmas Eve with an absolutely epic Vikingesque meal that can stretch over 12 hours of eating and drinking. The early courses are culled mostly from the North Sea – a saltwater buffet of salmon, herring, shrimp, lobster and crab – while the later dishes reach into the interior of forests and farmlands to serve up tenderloin (svinekod), curried meatballs (boller i karry) and roast duck or goose stuffed with apples and prunes. Desserts include cold rice pudding with hot cherry sauce and batter cakes known as aebleskiver, which are also a popular street-snack served at Danish Christmas markets.