The Christmas season combines swatches of joy with bits of reminiscence, accompanied by the occasional wish to just get through this marker between time past and time future.
I do like to see the holiday lights on my street of old apartments with streetlamps glowing softly on chilly nights. And at some point in the month I usually watch Albert Finney’s bravura performance in the redemption musical “Scrooge.”
Around my own humble apartment, an old collection of internally lit Dickensian buildings are on display. And a few elfin figures are spread about, recalling scenes from the life I knew and almost settled into over in “the cold country,” as the Danes call their nation, where, at this time year, the scenes really do resemble a postcard, with snow in front of 17th century buildings and parka-bundled kids shopping with their mothers.
And, as part of the rituals and the contemplation that come with this season, I sometimes publish an old story of mine that goes like this:
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.
The Danes are an odd mixture of modern man and centuries-old man. They are reasoned and open and wired. For example, in this little town all the houses — alle huse — receive free internet, the cables laid underground as part of a city project.
At the same time, the Danes are locked into traditions that go back and back in time.
In the National Museum in Copenhagen, they display artifacts that are 9,000 years old, including silver bracelets that look strikingly like the bracelets 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, ever-present in kitchens and cars, that serves as a binding cultural tie, I recognize the same Christmas songs that were played regularly last year and in the years before.
Another seasonal tradition is that kids collect “nisse” men, or elves, that are greatly more prevalent icons of the season here 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 every evening. With a bucket of water kept at the base of the tree, in case of fire.
Over years of visiting friends here, I have tried to learn the language, which bears a strong relation to old English. I bought a couple language books, but I would also read the illustrated books that friends have kept from childhood on the theory that I was at the same stage of language learning.
One of them was “Onkel Joakim Redder Jul”, the Donald Duck version of the Christmas Carol where Scrooge is Onkel Joakim who rescues Christmas or “Jul.”
What struck me was that the book's illustrations of old houses and narrow village streets and busy shops were not far off what I see outside the cafe, looking out over my Christmas beer.
There are the small shops, there are the bundled shoppers, there the centuries-old streets, 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 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!
Subscribe to our columns
Want new op-eds sent directly to your inbox? Subscribe below!