We made it: Easter is finally here and winter is surely behind us, right? For Danes, Easter is filled with so many wonderful traditions. Let us guide you through them so you can celebrate (or at least talk about) the holiday like a native:
In the Danish collective imagination, Erantis (winter aconite) and Vintergækker (snowdrops) are the first sign of spring that sprout up through the snow, followed shortly after by Påskelilje (daffodils) at Easter. I must admit, it’s pretty exciting to see the blossoms, especially after a long winter, and a January that had only nine hours of sunshine. Nine.
Gækkebreve – Snowdrop Letters
Creating and sending gækkebreve (snowdrop letters) is a unique Danish tradition. In the weeks before Easter, children cut out elaborate shapes on paper, then write a “teaser poem.” The letter is anonymous but signed with a number of dots corresponding to the number of letters in the sender’s name. If the recipient can guess who it’s from, the sender owes him an egg. If he can’t, he owes the sender an egg. The letter is accompanied by a winetergække (snowdrop), considered the first flower of the year.
Last Easter I received a wonderful gækkebreve from my neighbours’ children and made one in return. Snowdrop flowers emerge at the end of winter and stop flowering a month or so afterwards. After scouring gardens throughout Copenhagen on Good Friday, I realised I was too late in the season! My boyfriend assured me that it’s okay to send the Gækkebreve without it. Whew!
In the 1800’s Danish agricultural society, this tradition was not only for children at Easter; it was actually a method of proposing! The letters weren’t always decorated but instead contained a long verse and the vintergækker flower. Of course, the letter wasn’t anonymous. During the industrial revolution, as the the rural population moved to the city. The proposal letter was commercialized and changed into an anonymous letters with decoration and funny or flirtatious verses; these decorated letters could be purchased, either with verses or reply-verses. Instead of an egg, the prize was an invitation to meet for coffee or to go to a ball. This adult tradition had transformed into a children’s game by the 1930s.
The religious element of Easter is secondary for the majority of Danes. The focus is now on celebrating the beginning of spring. Danes decorate with spring colours and symbols of new life: shades of yellow, mint green, pale pink, new branches and daffodils. The most visible symbol of Easter is still the egg. Many danish children grow cress from eggs or bunny shapes.
Easter affords five consecutive days off from work. A number of schools make the entire Holy Week a holiday (the week before Easter) so it can amount to ten days. That is why most Danes regard Easter as the first opportunity to take a vacation and recharge after the long winter. The time is spent relaxing with friends and family, eating good food, going to the zoo with the kids and, if Denmark is lucky, enjoying the sun! For some Danes, Easter holiday is an opportunity to open their summer houses, work in their gardens or plant window boxes. For others, it’s the last chance to go skiing in Norway or Sweden.
Holy Thursday – Skærtorsdag
The Thursday is the first official day of Easter holiday in Denmark. On this day there are no longer many traditions held by Danes, although in the past Danes ate cabbage soup cooked with mutton or pork (called ‘skærtorsdag søbekål’). This was made with seven or nine kinds of cabbage (due to superstition), or an odd number of different greens if cabbage was too difficult to obtain. This was eaten because it was so nutritious and was believed to ensure health for the coming year. Although this is no longer done traditionally, I’m looking forward to splurging on cabbage next year and embracing this old custom. But do you think think I’ll be able to find seven types of cabbage?
Good Friday – Langfredag
Good Friday is called “Long Friday” in Danish; this seems to more appropriately capture the historical essence of the day although I recently found out that there are conflicting reasons why Good Friday is considered so “Good” in English.
On Good Friday, Danish flags fly at half-mast. For me, Good Friday is a wonderful day to cycle around the inner city and wander around the gardens because it is so peaceful and quiet. Although most stores are closed, you will find Døgn Netto, cinemas and some restaurants open.
In the past, Danes ate barley or flour porridge, though few Danes follow this tradition today. Being the super-traditionalist that I am, I made barley porridge for breakfast using this wonderful recipe – according to Oprah Magazine, it’s the best breakfast!
Easter Saturday – Skidenlørdag
Centuries ago, Danes would eat ‘skidne æg’ (dirty eggs), hard-boiled eggs in mustard sauce. The Saturday was called Skidenlørdag (dirty Saturday) because on this day Danes would begin their spring cleaning and remove grime that built up over the winter.
Many bigger shops will open again on Easter Saturday so you can top up your eggs stores and reach your daffodil quotas for the next day’s festivities…
The Easter Bunny visits children tonight! The Easter Bunny tradition came from Germany. Until the 1920s, the tradition was only embraced in Jutland and on the island of Langeland. Today, the Easter Bunny brings chocolate eggs and hides them in the garden for children to find on Easter Sunday.
Easter Sunday Lunch
This is the big day. Danes celebrate by eating. And eating. And eating. The typical Easter lunch is held with both family and friends. It consists of an ordinary Danish lunch: different kinds of herring and boiled eggs with cress, sliced meats, cheese and liver paste. As an Australian, I find it interesting that to this day Danes celebrate Easter with real boiled chicken eggs, not just chocolate eggs! Sometimes lamb is eaten as a traditional meal; historically this was a symbol of the Jesus’s sacrafice. There’s also plenty of Schnapps and Easter beer to go around. The special Easter brew made by Danish breweries is stronger and (apparently) more tasty than the average beer.
As with many holidays around the world, there are Danish Easter traditions that have been lost over time. Although they aren’t particularly relevant to living in Denmark now, I find them fascinating.
Previously, Easter week has been called ‘Dimmelugen’ because the church bells would not ring. Instead churches would ring træknebler, Dimler so it sounded more subdued and gentle.
Today, witch-burning is associated with Sankthansaften (Midsummer Eve) but in the past it was also associated with Easter. There are tales originating in the 1800’s where witches would fly to Bloksbjerg, a mountain in Germany, on the evening before Holy Thursday. If they didn’t go by broom, they could instead go by a magpie’s back. It was therefore impossible to see a magpie on that night, called “Skt. Skadesaften”. Most Danes have never heard of this but I promise I’m not making it up! After participating in this yearly witch party, organised by the Devil himself, the witches returnedto Denmark. The pastor would then use the very first egg that a hen laid after winter, called a hønnikeæg, in a bizarre ritual to uncover which of the village women had been flying the previous evening.
Another reason eggs were particularly prized at this time of year is because hens laid few to no eggs over winter. Egg production is dependent on light and given the lack of sunlight in winter, egg production would become stagnant. When spring arrived, the hens began to lay eggs again. Eggs were so highly valued that they were even used as a partial payment of salaries for pastors, parish clerks and servants.
Happy Easter everyone! We hope you have a relaxing, enjoyable holiday.