People often talk of Scandinavian summers with daylight nearing 20 hours a day, slim blond girls riding bikes everywhere, and public parks blanketed in sun revelers. Not many people talk about the Scandinavian winter. Maybe because they are inside under a blanket eating æbleskiver and pretending the 45 tea lights in the room are an acceptable substitute for sunlight. Nonetheless, the darkness lends a special matte sheen to everything, and the flickering of firelights emitted from every pane gives different sense of community.
Formatted somewhat after the long tapestries and woven rugs that are prevalent in castle museums, here is my tableau of Nordic wintertide.
While spending time in Denmark for the holidays I tried to hit up as many art museums as possible while having a 20-month-old in tow and Christmas traditions to uphold. Here is a run down of some of the inspiration and impressions I managed to pack in.
An exhibit on Yayoi Kusama was trippy in many respects – her art, her process, and her personal life. Moving by herself to America in 1957, she obsessively pursued her minimalist and conceptual style focusing on infinity and self-obliteration. Or, in layperson’s terms: DOTS! DOTS EVERYWHERE! In her later years she moved home to live in an asylum so she could focus on her art. So, yeah, dedication…to dots.
A visually oriented and comprehensive source of information on Yayoi Kusama, current exhibits, reviews & articles and much more can be found on Artsy.com. David Zwirner also has curated info on Yayoi and her shows/dates/info here.
A very abstract collection of video work from Joan Jonas titled Light Time Tales required in-depth reading of the exhibit pamphlet (read for yourself), but also had a few gems that required minimal head scratching. My favorite was a projector shining through hung crystals on a video of crystals being moved around.
Even an interview with artist commentary doesn’t provide that much explanation, but maybe that’s what it’s all about.
A combination of a castle with historical content, a modern art museum, and a kid-friendly hands-on museum of industry and transportation, this was a trifecta of learning. Most of the castles in Denmark are more fulfilling in the fairytale way, but there was a lot to see and do here – including an exhibit on religion and faith (read pamphlet for Rainbow in the Dark: On the Joy and Torment of Faith), immigration to Sweden then and now, and going inside a submarine. And this BMW Isetta.
Architects Mårten Claesson, Eero Koivisto & Ola Rune (with an easy to remember url of claessonkoivistorune.se) had a cross section of work spanning from small scale custom architecture, space design, furniture and product design. Definitively new Scandinavian.
Another small excerpt I enjoyed from the Louisiana trip was a part of a series by Dutch artist Marcel van Eden comprised of charcoal drawings based on historical fact but telling its own narrative, all occurring before his birth in 1965. In an interview he claims his work is “just like life, it makes no sense”. So there you have it!
Since I recently moved from Copenhagen, Denmark to Portland, Oregon, I thought I would revisit a map project I did a few years ago exploring the layout of a city and my experience in it – here you have a comparison of then and now.
Celebrating Christmas in Denmark is a very specific and special experience. Growing up in small-town Madras, Oregon with a Danish mother afforded a chance to experience a kind of Christmas celebration bubble. While at school the preparations were All American, at home they were focused on the motherland. Making paper crafts, lighting candles on the tree, and eating the Danish holiday foods were all very different from what everybody else in town did. My sister and I happily lived in a cocoon of Nordic tradition that we shared with just each other, until I decided to move to Denmark.
Residing in Demmark for Christmas this year, I understand how my mother was able to hold so steadfastly to her traditions through all the years – they were ingrained in her as if it was a part of her DNA. Experiencing all of these traditions as part of a group instead of just within my childhood family of four caused me to recognize the patterns and cultural norms which resulted in creating the above set of 24 icons that symbolize what almost every Dane recognizes as Christmas. In fact, the entire month of December is practically a collective countdown of the 24 days of Christmas.
That Danish Christmas DNA my mother imported to Oregon has roots in a proud and nationalistic country. Denmark is a small, homogenous land that has only recently been subjected to cultural diversification through immigration. The holiday traditions belong to the people of Denmark almost as if they were a small tribe, insulated from dilution and variation in a way that is very secure and nearly ritualistic. In the USA Christmas is big, but there is always an awareness that many people don’t celebrate it or do it “another way”. In Denmark, there is no “other way” – it’s the Daneway or the highway.
For example, I once asked a Dane if we could use a different varietal of jam to serve with æbleskiver (pancake balls). Hey, who cares if it’s blackberry or raspberry or strawberry jam? DANES DO. The facial response I received told me I was pretty much off my rocker for suggesting this, and I was told “Well, theoretically you could use any jam…”. Jam theory, let’s discuss. To be honest I’m still not sure if the “right” answer is hindbær or jordbær jam; I guess that’s what makes me only 1/2 Danish. Another time I ate risengrød (rice porridge) on a plate instead of a bowl to which a Dane passing through the kitchen exclaimed “My! I’ve never seen THAT done before!”. How I rock the boat in this little country entrenched in quaint and sometimes baffling rules.
These are minor examples, but not recounted to overshadow the fact that such deep traditions bind a people together in a special way. Below are some of the things that are the glue of the Danish Christmas experience…
Key code to the twenty-four icons of Danish Christmas
You got it, a Christmas tree – decorated with Danish flags and live burning candles. 2. kalenderlys
A large candle with 24 numerals on it, meant to burn down a little bit each day in December leading up to the 24th, when all Danes celebrate Christmas Eve. 3. krans
Holiday wreath. 4. julebryg
Beer you drink around Christmas. Put the word “Christmas” (jul) in front of it, and anything goes in December. 5. sne
Denmark is about the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska – so the days are dark and sometimes filled with snow. 6. klokker der kimer
Churches abound in Denmark, so the chiming of bell towers is prevalent across the land. 7. flettede hjerter
Braided paper heart baskets that can be hung on the tree and filled with treats (esp. #24 pebernødder). 8. julesange
On Christmas Eve, the songbook comes forth as the entire family dances around the tree and sings songs before opening presents. Sometimes, a conga line is even formed through the entire house to sing “Nu er det Jul igen” (“Now it’s Christmas again”), after which participants collapse in a heap of exertion and bellies full of duck or pork roast. 9. nisser
Christmas gnomes that, as opposed to US elves that help Santa, instead run around the entire holiday making mischief (an example that one Danish Christmas song documents is “peeing in the piano”). 10. snemand
Kids who live in snowy areas somehow know how to build these suckers, no directions required. 11. kirke
Even though most Danes pay tax to the state church (which is Lutheran), Christmas might be the only time they ever attend. 12. pakkeleg
A brutally competitive dice game where players steal each other’s gifts. 13. æbleskiver
Small pancake-like balls formed in a special pan, served with marmalade and powdered sugar. Not just any marmalade, the RIGHT KIND. Which as far as I can deduce is raspberry. 14. julestjerne
A complicated paper craft involving weaving 4 strips of paper into a 3D star. 15. engel
Find them in churches, in snowy fields of play, or in heaven. 16. hygge
Replicate as follows: get together with friends, make a warm drink, light some candles and have a good time. 17. mistelten
Danes are an amorous bunch from time to time – mistletoe combined with a julefrokost* (Christmas lunch) and schnapps (#21) is a dangerous combination. 18. skøjter
Town squares are often filled with ice for skating. 19. flag
As with any Danish time of celebration, use of flags is omnipresent and overwhelming. 20. risengrød
A rice porridge served with butter, cinnamon and sugar – often left in the attic to appease the mischievous nisser (#9). 21. snaps
Highly alcoholic and served at all Danish julefrokost* (Christmas lunch). 22. mandarin-dekoration
Take an orange or mandarin, stick some cloves in it, and hang it up with a red ribbon for an aromatic decoration. 23. advent
The Sundays before Christmas are celebrated by burning candles, and lots of hygge (#16). 24. pebernødder
Delightful tiny cookies with a distinctive cardamom and pepper flavor, often sold in triangular bags called ‘kræmmerhuse’.
I hope you can enjoy your own slice of Danish Christmas, wherever you are in the world. Glædelig Jul!
*A Julefrokost is a traditional lunch that would require its own set of 24 icons. It involves about 6+ hours of eating, all supervised by a strict set of culinary rules that DO NOT involve putting herring and cheese together in any manner.
Try making a braided heart, cut out a few kravlenisser (clambering gnomes) and display them on a bookshelf by bending back the grey tab and putting under books, or attempt weaving a 3D star ornament based on this tutorial or color coded directions. Or, if you’re downright insane, try this.
Many moons ago I ventured to Pendleton, Oregon for the annual Round-Up. Growing up in Central Oregon I had gone to a few local rodeos and fairs, but the Pendleton Round-Up is the BIG TIME, so there was some preparatory work to do. First off, I dug up all my childhood photo albums to relive my days as a young girl obsessed with horses. Want me to name every anatomical point of an equine? Naw, didn’t think so.
Then, I pulled up the top hits of country music from the mid-90s so I could make a playlist worthy of the 3 1/2 hour drive to Pendleton. Despite the wrinkled expressions of displeasure that I received from my car-mates, I stand by this as a totally rocking road trip mix that I dubbed “Pendleton Cheese”.
There are a lot of requirements for being a bona fide cowboy, and during our short time in Pendleton we tried to experience as many as possible. One night, Michael checked ‘being a hipster badass’ off his to-do list by being the first in the room to hop on the mechanical bull.
I knew it would be tough to look legit in a town that would certainly realize I was city folk, but anyone can aspire to be a real cowboy, and my research turned up a few nuggets of pure western gold.
The Pendleton Round-Up is one of the largest rodeos in the US and dubbed the “fastest moving rodeo” because of the extreme organization of the back-to-back events. No sooner had the last bronc rider been bucked off and it was on to the next competition. One of the most exciting events was the Indian Relay Race. Those original Americans sure know how to ride.
Another fun part of visiting Pendleton was taking a tour of the underground tunnels and the brothels. Cowboys live a hard life, and they gotta have fun sometimes. I suppose that’s why some girls go wrong.
While my friends and I didn’t necessarily go wrong, it sure was a weekend to remember: whiskey drinking, rough riding, dust in your face fun. While we might not have passed muster as a true tough-as-nails cowboys, we definitely won the belt buckle for having a good time, encapsulated perfectly in these lyrics from Garth Brooks “Rodeo”. Now, where do I find a belt sturdy enough to hold up my pelvis-plaque of honor?
Well it’s bulls and blood, it’s dust and mud, it’s the roar of a Sunday crowd…
It’s the white in his knuckles, the gold in the buckle, he’ll win the next go ’round…
It’s boots and chaps, it’s cowboy hats, it’s spurs and latigo…
It’s the ropes and the reins, and the joy and the pain, and they call the thing…