Under deep gray skies, in a little town in Denmark, it starts to snow.
In white flurries, it falls on the dark cobblestones. Shoppers are wearing jackets and long coats, children are fully bundled up in insulated jumpsuits, caps and gloves.
I am looking out on the main walking street from a dark-wooded cafe with a Christmas beer in front of me, a dark, potent brew that is made only at this time of year. continued
The Danes are an odd mixture of modern man and centuries-old man. They are reasoned and open and wired. For example, the streets here are being torn up by the city to provide high-speed internet access to all the houses, with the government considering internet access a utility like electricity, phones and water.
At the same time, the Danes are locked into traditions that go back and back in time.
In the anthropology museum in Copenhagen, they have artifacts that are 9,000 years old, including silver jewelry that looks strikingly like the jewelry that young girls wear today in Denmark.
In one of the oldest coffins discovered, on a forlorn headland on their western coast, the surviving articles were a woman’s reddish, dark blonde hair, the same unusual tint that is common among women here today, a long skirt and a beer bucket.
The farmland has been passed down through hundreds of years of Danish generations. Even the ever-shifting sea of pop culture really doesn’t change that much here. On the radio — everpresent in kitchens and cars and serving as a binding cultural tie — recognize the same Christmas songs that were played regularly last year and the years before.
Another seasonal tradition is that kids collect “nisse” men, or elves, that are greatly more prevalent icons of the season than Santa Claus, and those collections of strange, small men with big ears and red suits, hold over to the adults who festoon their houses with nisse men this time of year.
And as December proceeds, in a tradition that I have often thought should result in death and destruction, they light actual, burning candles on the branches of the Christmas tree in the evenings. With a bucket of water kept at the base of the tree, in case of emergency.
Over years of visiting friends here, I have tried to learn the language, which bears a strong relation to old English. I have bought a couple language books. But I also tried reading children’s books on the theory that the I was at a child’s reading level in Danish.
One of the books was “Onkel Joakim Redder Jul”, the Donald Duck version of the Christmas Carol where Scrooge is Onkel Joakim who saves Christmas or “Jul.”
What strikes me in remembering that children’s-book portrait of the Christmas season, with the drawings of old houses and narrow village streets and busy shops, is that it is not far off what I see now, looking out over my Christmas beer.
There are the small shops, there are the bundled shoppers, there the centuries-old street, the cold, dark winter weather, the snow.
It is like entering a fable to be here at this time of year. Almost all the house windows display white Christmas lights or lights in the shape of the Hanukkah candelabra, or a softly-lit red star.
The few windows with colored lights, as opposed to white lights, are said to be those of people from Iceland, where that is the tradition. The shops display string upon string of lights, both white and colored, and all of them glint and glow more magically, it seems, in the frosty, dark nights.
In the words of Onkel Joakim, “Glaedelig Jul,” and in ours, Merry Christmas!