A Year of Danish Traditional Holidays

Celebrations with families and communities are a common way to enjoy and pass on Danish traditions. Holidays offers a way for Danish immigrants and Danish Americans to celebrate their heritage, sometimes merging Danish customs with American customs.

More men than women emigrated from Denmark in the 1800s, so many Danish immigrant men in the United States married non-Danish women, generally of German, Norwegian, or Swedish background. But many Danish-American families retained Danish social customs and homeways. They continued traditional holiday celebrations and prepared traditional foods. Some Danish-American communities had public celebrations of Constitution Day (Grundlovsdag) on June 5th, the anniversary of the Danish democratic constitution. Early June continues to be a popular time of year for Danish-American communities to host a festival of Danish heritage.

Christmas

Christmas traditions often highlight the merging of Danish and American customs. On Christmas Eve (Julaften) Danish immigrants would have the most important feast of the year. The traditional dinner in many families consisted of rice pudding, roast goose with prune sauce or prune and apple stuffing, glazed potatoes, red cabbage with currant jelly, coffee and pastries. Other maintained regional holiday customs from various parts of Denmark. Adults and children alike fashioned traditional red and white woven heart baskets (Julehjerte) and other paper decorations and garlands of paper Danish flags (Danebrog) with which they decorated their Christmas tree. Today, Danish-American families continue to express their heritage through Christmas food traditions and decorations.

Fastelavn

Other Danish holidays are not as familiar to Americans. Fastelavn is a Danish celebration held on the last day before Lent. In the United States, its best known as Mardi Gras. Fastelavn originates from the Roman Catholic tradition of celebrating in the days before Lent, but when Denmark became Protestant, the celebration became less religious.

A special tradition arose in Denmark during Medieval times called "beating the cat out of the barrel", which resembles a piñata. Folks believed that the spirit of winter was a black cat that had to be driven away before spring could come. Historically, a black cat was placed in a barrel and villagers, who were dressed in costumes so that the evil spirit could not recognize them, beat the barrel until it splintered. The frantic cat would then fall to the floor and run off, and so winter was banished.

In Denmark today, children dress in costume (much like Halloween). They beat a barrel that is full of candy and trinkets. When the barrel breaks there's a mad scramble to collect as much as one can! The one who bashes the barrel open is crowned the "Cat Queen" and whoever knocks down the last piece of the barrel is named "Cat King". Children also go from door to door in their costumes, singing a special song called "fastelavn er mit navn". For this, they receive candy and money. And if they don't, they play tricks! (For full lyrics to the song click here).

Watch our youtube videos below to see more about how to celebrate fastelavn and how to bake Fastelavnsboller, a delicious dessert that is traditionally eaten on this holiday, and which can be a lot of fun.

English Name Danish Name Date
Easter Paaske Varies
First Easter Day Første Paaskedag The Monday after Easter
Second Easter Day Anden Paaskedag The Tuesday after Easter
Ascension Day Kristi Himmelfartsdag The Thursday 40 days after Easter
Witsun Day Pinse Seventh Sunday after Easter
Valborg Eve Valborg Aften May 1
Liberation Day Befrielsesdag May 5
Constitution Day Grundlovsdag June 5
Midsummer Sankt Hans Aften June 24
St. Martins Day Sankt Mortens Aften November 11
Little Christmas Eve Lille Juleaften December 23
Christmas Eve Juleaften December 24
Christmas Juledag December 25
Second Christmas Day Anden Juleaften December 26
New Year’s Eve Nytaarsaften December 31
New Year Nytaarsdag January 1
Second New Year’s Day Anden Nytaarsdag January 2
Epiphany (Twelfth Night) Helligetrekongersdag January 6
Shrove Tuesday Fastelavn The day before Lent begins
Maunday Thursday Skaertorsdag The Thursday before Easter
Good Friday Lang Fredag The Friday before Easter