Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Shout from Copenhagen, Thomas E. Kennedy

The Danish Xmas Lunch: Eating, Drinking & Dancing It.

Julefrokost, the Danes call it, and those three or four syllables evoke a complex of delight and shame to all who have truly experienced this most Danish of institutions. The big Gyldendal Danish-English dictionary gives “office party” as the English equivalent, but that is not sufficient, is a mere slice of what a julefrokost actually means. Danish Xmas lunch is my preferred translation, but don’t let the singular form deceive you: one may well – indeed is likely to – enjoy multiple Danish Xmas lunches in a single season, and the Xmas lunch season in this ancient kingdom stretches from approximately the penultimate Friday in November until some few days before Xmas Eve.

But a Danish Xmas lunch is far from only an office party, though that too is one of the masks it dons. And a piquant mask it is – an opportunity for men and women who have been appreciatively and more or less obliquely eyeing one another all year to let loose for half a day and half a night and partake of the original Roman Bacchanal that was the pagan antecedent of the birth of Christ: eat to excess, drink to excess, hold speeches fraught with erotic double entendre, tell lewd jokes in mixed company, sing parodies of endeared sweet Xmas songs:

Christmas time is here/Dad is drinking beer/Mother’s lyin’ underneath the table!/No it isn’t true/Yes, it is quite true/Drink another snaps if you are able… (Compare with the American equivalent: Please, daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas/I don’t wanna see my mamma cry…)
And to dance, dance closer, closer, closer… And for the lucky, daring few, yet closer, into the sofa corners, closets, behind locked or barricaded office doors: Ah, at last! I’ve always wanted to kiss you there, my sweet, there and here and…

And because it is, after all, a Christian nation, to drink a bitter dram of guilt next day, to know the horror! the horror! of morality’s hangover (or as the Danes call a hangover, tømmermænd, carpenters sawing and hammering in the head) for the next several days, weeks months – for the most morally susceptible of us perhaps until the next Xmas lunch.

But that is about the Danish office Xmas lunch. There are also family Xmas lunches, club Xmas lunches, pensioner Xmas lunches, society and associational Xmas lunches. There are Xmas lunches celebrated as traditions among friends, school friends, army friends, cooperative apartment friends… There is indeed an Xmas lunch for every excuse and occasion.

A Danish Xmas lunch consists of food, drink and company – much of the former two, at least two of the latter, although in a pinch, one can conceivably eat an Xmas lunch alone, though that might end in a honeymoon of the hand. It requires, first of all, a table, preferably a long one with many chairs, and every place setting, if one is doing it right, will include two small plates, one atop the other, separated by a napkin, to the left a butter board and two forks, to the right two knives (one set of cutlery for the fish, one for the meat – who said Danes are not kosher), and two glasses, one for beer and one for aquavit (aka snaps or schnapps, about which more later). There might also be a tiny candle, a small figure of an Xmas elf, a sprig of pine or the like.)

Along the center of the table, if one is doing it right (as for example my ex-mother in law used to) will be ranged somewhere between a dozen and two dozen or more plates containing: herring (pickled, sherried, curried, fried, other spiced varieties), smoked eel with chives and scrambled egg (all ready for the ground pepper), perhaps a bit of boiled cod roe and caviar, shrimp with mayonnaise, smoked salmon, gravid salmon (which formerly was buried in the earth to be acted upon by its microbes, now is treated chemically) with sweet mustard sauce and dill, breaded and fried filet of plaice with remoulade, roast pork with crackling and chopped, stewed red cabbage, headcheese with pickled beets, sliced meats (boiled ham, roast beef, salted beef, rolled pork, salami) with Italian salad and picadily relish on the side, cheeses (of the cow, of the goat, of the sheep), and an array of condiments and garnish: chives, cress, dill, raw onion, capers, horse radish… And of course, baskets of sliced dark rye bread as only the Danes can bake it, “French” bread, flat bread, a variety of biscuits for the cheese. And, naturally, a variety of bottles of aquavit and bottled beer. The former might include Brøndum and Aalborg and Krone (all flavored with carroway and other spices) and the Norweigan Linje (which is shipped, after distillation, in sherry kegs across the equator – the linje – so it sloshes about in the keg and is flavored by the sherry residue). The latter will certainly include Tuborg and Carlsberg lager, most likely Christmas Brew (5-7%) and possibly also Gold Beer, Giraffe Beer and/or Elephant beer (which goes up to 8 or 9% alcohol).

The way to enter the dining room where an Xmas lunch is being served (or any formal Danish lunch of this variety) is quietly, with reserve, even a bit shyly. You may give your hand to the other guests who are milling about, waiting for the host or hostess to seat you. It is usual to shake hands German-style, in the order of the others’ gender, “importance,” and age: Visiting foreigners are given precedence (no doubt in recognition of the fact that as outsiders they cannot be expected to know their place in the pecking order) as are women and the agéd. “Importance” may be decided by rank or achievement or popularity. This might sound snobbish, even dog-like, but in a certain way it makes sense and is not as difficult as it may sound. Normally, the guests will make themselves available for your hand at the right time, instinctively knowing their and your order.

Conversation will be sparse at this phase. No aperitif will normally be offered, and people will seize upon any tidbit of banter – for example, if someone has recently won a prize, completed an education, or had a promotion or an accident or some other bit of bad luck, a brief word of congratulations or condolence might be offered. This is and is allowed to be a somewhat awkward vestibule to what is to come. This reserved manner will continue as you shuffle to table, to your appointed place (if there are no table cards you will be told by host or hostess where to sit – obey!)

Once seated, the reserve will continue until the hostess says, “Be so good as to seat yourself,” and then, “Be so good as to eat.” This does not mean to eat whatever. It means to take a slice of dark rye bread from the basket(s) being passed, to spread butter or fat on the bread, fork on a bit or three of herring from the passing dishes, raw onion, capers, and when every one has on their plates a perfectly composed open herring sandwich, to cut and fork a mouthful into your gob, chew, and wait – until host or hostess lifts his/her aquavit glass (which by now will have been filled), looks around the table at each guest and says, “Skål!”

Only then do all at the table lift their glasses, look around to meet the eyes of all others, say, “Skål!” and – this is a very important, oft overlooked detail – glance at the host to see how much of his glass he takes. A snaps glass is about 2-4 centiliters deep, and the rate at which it is to be consumed, if one is following the rules of traditional Danish julefrokost, is set by the host. If he takes a single sip, it will be a slower start to the festivities. If he “snaps” (bites) a half or even a whole glassful, it will be faster. After the snaps comes the beer chaser, perhaps with an uttered or muttered “Skål.”

Once you have eaten the one open sandwich of herring, you will want to try each of the others, followed by the other courses on the table – fish first (although salmon and shrimp might come later in the meal if one is of such a mind.) Glasses will in due course be refilled, empty beer bottles replaced, and more or less slowly, formality will fall away. The quiet around the table will be broken by conversation, laughter, jokes, perhaps even song. Perhaps someone at the table will sing a Danish Rifle Club or Swedish fishing song – for example, about the eel, a song in which the eel children express dismay to their eel mother about the fact that their eel father has been caught by a fisherman – each stanza followed by a skål.

By now, you may initiate freely your own toasts (“skål!”), though it is very important not to do so before the host’s initial skål, which may result in confusion or chill silence or, as once happened to me, a cutting reprimand from the hostess – which is how I learned about this rule. Still, there are Danes who are not aware of this, by which they expose their breeding, or lack of same.

But after the first snap, there will be many others, and you might freely toast the others. You may even single out a specific person along the table whom you wish to salute and say, for example, “Annelise!” (You gorgeous bitch, you!) “Skål!” The intimate meeting of the eyes, the sip (or snap), and you have announced your wish to be friends, perhaps more.
Not always, but often, after the lunch has been eaten – which is a slow and joyously extended affair – the dancing will begin. If the Xmas lunch is indeed an office party (where partners normally are not present) the dancing will almost certainly begin, and even if you are not normally a dancer, you will almost certainly dance, moved by the snaps to do so. You will, at least at some Xmas lunches, dance fast and slow and long and briefly with many or all of the opposite gender. At bold, blurred moments you may also take liberties – not lewd liberties but decided ones: tips of fingers climbing firmly up the spine, a grasp of a tender flank, a seemingly innocent palm brushed across a luscious buttock, even perhaps a thumb upon a delectable nipple.

Remember that now you are tipsy, as is your dancing partner. That the darkest time of year is approaching, that you are honor-bound in a discreet manner to confirm the life force, and what is the life force if not the attraction of male and female (although in some cases this might be the attraction of female and female or male and male, and some people like that, and I am not putting it down).

Dancing is an interesting custom. Once I asked a Greek fellow whom I sat alongside at a dinner, “What would you say is the function of dancing?” This particular Greek fellow had bad teeth and consequently bad breath and, no doubt related to that, a bad complexion and pitted nose and was also short – even shorter than me – and fat – even fatter than me – but he spoke with great authority when he said, “It is for thee women to move thee sexually-interesting parts of the woman body before thee men and thee men to move the sexually-interesting parts of thee man body before thee women.”

In this manner, at a Danish Xmas lunch, sometimes, though far from always, for the bold and fortunate, the dance progresses to a shaded corner or a chamber separée – and for those still able to perform – the ultimate confirmation of the life force: the two-backed beast.

But in most cases, it is but a flirt, a refreshing flirt, a mutual appreciation of eyes and touch.
And whether or not you do or you don’t, next morning you will regret it. But soon – in days, weeks, months, you will be looking forward the next opportunity, the approach of the next winter solstice, the chance to do it all again, from sober start to staggering conclusion. And if you have a good long life, you will have some three score plus chances to make such a fool of yourself in celebration of the fact that the darkness may be deep, but the light will come again, life will continue.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy (

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