Jul in Århus

Thanks to a week in Kiev, my exit from the EU was pushed back enough for a Christmas in Aarhus, my first in Denmark. I thought I'd experienced hygge before, but Juleaften (Christmas Eve) in Jutland raised it to a new level.

In the early-afternoon, just as the darkness was setting in outside, Bodil, Joanna and Martin gathered into the kitchen for an hour or so of rolling, cutting, stirring, dipping, then stuffing chocolate-covered marzipan balls with almonds, all merry and busy as elves. At 4pm the kids settled in with a plate of their new creations for the mandatory viewing of the Danish Disney program, a ritual since 1958. Back in the dining room, duck, pork roast, browned potatoes, gravy and plenty of wine followed, then rice porridge with cherry sauce for dessert. When younger kids are in the house, a bowl of the porridge is left nearby for the mischievous gnomes that are known to be avid pranksters. By pure luck (or else because Joanna placed it there), the unbroken almond ended up in my bowl of porridge, an auspicious sign in Denmark: while the others would be forced into the kitchen for the dishes, I'd have the honor of lighting the candles set around the tree. Alone in the warm, soft-lit room, decked with wreaths, dozens of candles and homemade ornaments spanning three generations, I waited for the others to return, patiently.

The most memorable ritual followed, a tradition that I like to believe has roots stretching into pre-historic times in the forests of Scandinavia: we circled the tree. Bodil had little hymn-booklets ready, and so even I could join in awfully-pronounced Danish, struggling through three or four songs, broken up with variously-directed laughter as we circumambulated the tree. Gifts were then opened while all the candles burned themselves down much too quickly.

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