Growing up as a child of immigrants you gradually become aware of your differences from “Canadian” families. One example is playing the “what are you” game. When children discuss their heritage. Everyone was “part” something. Part Scottish. Part German. Part this and that. When asked “What are you?” my answer was boring. I’m Danish. No part this or that. Nothing exotic. Just Danish. Kids would look at me a little funny because lets face it, half the adults I know didn’t know what Danish was until recent years found the idea of Hygge spreading throughout North America. Even now when I say my family is from Denmark I am often met with the comment “Oh. You’re Dutch.” (Eye Roll) Nope. Danish. The Dutch are from Holland. The Netherlands. Not Denmark. Frankly its quite a small place. Just a little chunk of land jutting out of northern Germany with a bunch of Islands scattered around. That little chunk of land jutting out is actually called Jutland. No, it isn’t pronounced the way it looks. The population is rather small as well both in Denmark and abroad so there aren’t that many of us in the world comparatively speaking.
The food you eat as an immigrant is different as well. Sandwiches are open faced and eaten with a fork and knife. Hot dog type sausages, polser, are twice as long as weiners. Twice as tasty as well. And they aren’t eaten in a bun. Frikkediller is our family fave. A Danish meatball my friends all remember from my childhood. Even today I get the urge to make them just like my mom Ditte. Dozens are frozen for when my kids come home. Pickled herring with rye bread was a treat. Dry older rye bread was completely dried in the oven and later soaked overnight in water and boiled in the morning to make a porridge of sorts. I loved it. Nothing wasted. I know how to say it but I have no idea how to spell it. It was lovely. Another favourite use of rye bread was using a cheese grater to sprinkle it on top of a yogurt/buttermilk mix with a little brown sugar. Raw egg was big as well. Beat the yolk until bright yellow. Add sugar and beat until really thick. Beat the whites until peaks are formed. Fold together for the most incredible pudding ever. My Farmor (Fathers mother) made that for us when she babysat. Liverpostej, a pate’ is my go to comfort food. Pebernodder are a chunky little cookie we make at Christmas. We had little crispy brown molasses cookies with a thin slice of almond on top. I still can’t make them thin enough. Luckily Ikea sells something similar. Kruncekage is a tower of rings decorated with drizzled icing and poppers and flags. They are made with pureed almond, sugar and egg white. It was my wedding cake but it is used for all special occasions. It doesn’t last long with the Pedersen’s in the house. Gosh my mouth just waters. I want to hop the next flight to Copenhagen . The land of magic where I can get ice cream in a waffle cone drizzled with strawberry jam with a chocolate covered marshmallow and graham wafer cookie stuffed into the bottom of the cone. Heaven, right! My Mother once told me how hard it was for her to eat corn. At her home it was pig food. She adapted. We embraced it. Although turkey was seldom roasted when I was young We also ate it whenever it was on sale. Usually after Canadian holidays. She would cut the whole thing into chunks and fry it. Today my family still loves turkey breast cut thin, dredged in flour and fried in butter. Ditte fried everything Even wieners. We are a large family. In girth and numbers.
Holidays are different. There wasn’t Halloween in Denmark when my parents were young. As a Christian country they did celebrate All Saints day November first when you visit the cemetery. We attend a Danish church and once a year we remember all those who have died in the previous year. The Danes do their dress up celebration on Fastelavn. The day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. More commonly referred to as Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. The day you use up all of your rich and nummy food to prepare for the 40 days leading to Easter. A time of reflection and deprivation when we prepare to celebrate Jesus death and resurrection. Some how for the Danes that is a period of dress-up with a cat in a barrel (not a real cat but a barrel filled with candy). A sort of piñata that when finally broken and emptied 2 people are crowned the Cat King and Queen. Sounds odd? Not to a Dane.
Another thing odd for my parents was Thanksgiving. That is North American and so while we do celebrate the day now it wasn’t important in my childhood. The biggest difference though was Christmas. We celebrate Christmas Eve as the big day. But let me back up a bit. Advent is the first part of the Christian calendar year. You all know it as a box with little doors and chocolate treats that start the countdown to December 25th. It is actually the four weeks leading up to Christmas day and starts on a Sunday so the date changes every year. Again it is a time of preparation. In Denmark the country observes this time with special television series and family events. Here, we do our own thing. We have a wreath with four candles and each sunday a candle is lit while we read a short story and say prayers. Our tree is put up on the 23rd but in Denmark normally it was decorated early on the 24th. Christmas Eve is magical. We have dinner with very Danish foods. I make turkey but traditionally we ate Roast pork and Goose or Duck. Our stuffing was apples and prunes and we save all the little baby potatoes from the garden and cook then in a caramelized sugar. Hot red cabbage and veggies round out the meal. Dessert is pudding with strawberries or raspberries on top. There is one almond in the pudding and whoever gets the almond gets a prize. Traditionally it is a rice pudding but my Dad didn’t like rice pudding as a child so we eat something a little different. See how traditions change? One spoiled little boy changed things for 3 generations of Danes who would never dream of eating rice pudding at Christmas. And finally we attend church, come home to dance around the tree holding hands and singing Christmas songs. After each song the children shout out what they want to sing. Last year my three year old grandson Louie shouted out “Spiderman” so we sang the Spiderman cartoon theme song. I’m sure it will now become a tradition that one day Louie’s grandkids will laugh about After we sing and dance someone reads the Christmas story from the bible and then all of the gifts are opened. As a child we spent Christmas day with friends but it wasn’t Christmas for us. It was the day after Christmas. We slept in since we stayed up until the wee hours of the night playing games or cards and eating. As an adult I spent Christmas day with In-laws but it never felt the same as the magic of Christmas eve. I never woke up to Santa presents but my Children did since their Dad had his magic as well. But we usually had to wake them up since they didn’t have the same excitement. They had opened gifts already. And now my children incorporate their in-law traditions into their married lives. New ways become tradition.
The world has come to know Denmark in the past few years as more than a country of Danish Pastry. Everyone wants to go there, to live there, to be like the Danes. I feel I belong there even though I was born here. There’s a comfort for me when I hear Danish being spoken. The accent of half the people in my church. They sound like my Mom. But there are differences that make living there hard for foreigners. They are private. They don’t hug like the rest of the world. My daughter found that out when she tried to hug the Danish husband of a newer friend. He backed away held out his hand explaining Danish people don’t hug. She laughed and said, “I thought that was just my Mom.” She married into an Italian family and they hug everyone. Danes have a rich home life or family life but if you live there it may be lonely if you don’t already have relatives or friends. They aren’t as quick to invite the world into their homes. They are proud of their history and their heritage. They are proud of their role in the last world war. There were instances where Jewish families were rounded up and taken away. By the Danes. Smuggled out of the country to England. Jewish children were placed in homes of non Jews and hidden in plain sight. When the war ended and families returned to their homes, it was as if time stood still. Houses were cleaned, farms were maintained and livestock were cared for. All by neighbours. You see, in Denmark you are Danish first, Jewish second. They care for their own. My Dad said fifty six Danish Jews died under Hitlers evil time. That was Fifty six too many he said. Nowadays they may be criticized by some for not embracing immigrants or refugees. For me it all boils down to this. In Denmark your are Danish first. End of story.
Something my Mom used to mention when I was young was Janteloven. It is based on a book written by Aksel Sandemose. There is a list of rules on how to live or how to act. The book was written in the 1930’s but the mentality is ages old in Denmark. Although I now know the rules, as a child my Mom boiled it down to one sentence. Never place yourself above another. It is a code in Denmark and in fact all of Scandinavia. Here and everywhere it is common to brag about your children and their achievements, but in Denmark it is something that would be met with silence. Bragging just isn’t done. Last week I met a gal from the past who asked about my kids. I tried so hard to hold back but I finally had to blurt out a recent accomplishment of my son Sam. My bursting pride was deflated in a moment while a vision of my Mom passed through my mind and I was embarrassed. She is always that woman silently trying to keep me in line. Funny thing though, I listen to her more now than I ever did when she was alive.
Many know the term Hygge now as a Danish thing and for me the word brings up memories of my Mom. She was Hygge. Soft and warm. Loving. Always baking and cooking. Walking into the house after school on a cold winter day. The sun already starting to go down. A blast of heat and beautiful smells would hit you as you opened the door and stepped inside. Lamps in the living room soft and warm. Books and a reading nook over by the veranda. Some say Hygge is cozy but it is so much more than that. It is safety and comfort and contentment. It is food and warmth and love. It is all those things rolled up into one. It is simply Hygge. Ditte. Mom.
I love that I am Danish Canadian. I love that my family are immigrants. I love the differences we celebrate as Danes. I love my heritage and the country of my parents birth. We are the only ones here. Mom and Dad landing in Halifax February 14, 1949 with two year old twins and a four month old baby. My mother was one month shy of her twenty first birthday. She spoke no English and followed the love of her life to a new home far from her family. It was his dream, never hers. He was always Canadian but she kept the “old country” alive in us. Life was very hard for them and she stood by him. When he died, she was ready to follow him then as well. He was her life. A few years ago someone told my daughter she wouldn’t mind immigrants and refugees living next door as long as they didn’t wear their traditional clothes or cook their traditional food. I’m hear to tell you friends, that is racism. We were white. No one cared about our food or clothes. No one cared that we celebrated holidays in a different way. Over time we have assimilated in many ways but we are still carrying on our Danish ways. No one cares. We are white. It is different. We are just odd, or interesting. Carrying on traditions passed down from our parents. I have close friends that continually preach fitting in or embracing Canadian ways. I am first generation Canadian. I could easily live in Denmark or Canada. I love them both. If living here means I have to Celebrate Christmas on Christmas day, eat Alberta beef hamburgers or hug everyone I meet, well I’ll stick with being Danish. I have learned being raised in an immigrant home is a rich and wonderful experience. I have learned I am blessed that my parents chose Canada. I have learned that immigrants do what they do for their kids. Some pretty lucky kids. I am one of them and I will always be thankful for the sacrifices my parents made. To Kjeld and Ditte. The oddest couple with the deepest love. Thank you! For making me Canadian but keeping me Danish.