I moved to Denmark in 2009, with my then 4-year old daughter. My husband has two sons, who
were 4 and 7 at the time.
I come from New York, where everyone I grew up with had different backgrounds. My mother
is Catholic and my father is Jewish, and that was completely normal for our neighborhood. We
celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas when I was growing up, and my parents pedagogically
included me in the existentialist process of discovering and developing our identity as a family,
especially when it came to religion and traditions.
December is a difficult time for me here in Denmark. There is no escaping the all-encompassing
month of Jul. Christmas lights go up around town while I’m still planning Thanksgiving dinner
at our house. Shopkeepers that don’t even make eye contact with me during the eleven other
months start to merrily wish me a “God Jul!” on the way out the door, and Christmas proper is still
three and a half weeks away. It amazes me every year, how willing Danes are to give up a twelfth
of their lives for Christmas.
I find the practice of annual holiday gift-giving to be tainted with social pressure, anxiety, and
Ideally, I’d prefer that December was just an ordinary month, with time off at the end of the year to
spend with family and friends. I’d like to show appreciation for the people I care about by random
gift giving throughout the year, when I see something I think they’d like, or when I think they could
use an unexpected boost in their day. So many people talk about the importance of Christmas
as being “family” and “spending time together”, but I haven’t seen anyone actually practice that
without also eventually caving into the social demand of buying presents, myself included.
My Danish stepsons, lovely, sweet boys, come to live with us every other week. The newness of
being a stepmother hasn’t worn off yet, and being a third parent in a country where many of their
classmates live at two addresses continues to be an adjustment for me. There is something about
the concept of “instant kernefamilie – just add hygge” that rubs against the grains of my own
But there is also something about Denmark, where one is expected to go with the flow and
embrace things, because “this is what we’ve always done”. It’s never been easy for me to
separate Christmas from its non-secular foundation, but in Denmark, the Christian affiliation to
Christmas tends to be glossed over in favor of tradition, hygge, cookies, and flickering candlelight.
As a foreigner, I’m not supposed to rock the boat too much. As a stepmother, I’m not supposed to
rock the boat at all.
From what I understand, my stepsons’ mother grew up without financial abundance during
her childhood on Sjælland. Like the rest of us, she tries to “correct” the discomforts of her own
childhood by giving her children everything she felt she didn’t have. My stepsons, especially
the older 10-year old, are constantly looking at what their peers have and wishing they had the
same. Their mother, as a gesture of love, furnishes them with every material object she thinks
they should have, so that they never have to feel insecure. They never had thrift store belongings
until I realized the horror of how easily young boys go through pants knees. So in our house,
their clothes are primarily second-hand. However, as a result of their mother’s well-meaning
intentions, my stepsons are materialistic and crushingly insecure, thinking that their self worth is
only equal to the things that are purchased for them.
Their fragile selves could benefit greatly from time spent strengthening their appreciation for the
simple pleasures of just being together over the holidays, endless days lost in library books, and
taking long walks in the woods with their feet crunching in snow, away from electronic diversions,
but because of the tenuous, everyday monster that is fællesforældremyndighed, this will never
Christmas in our house is therefore delicate, slightly painful, and not as I wish it to be.
By the time it’s the boys’ week to come and spend their holidays with us, they are filled with
sugar, bright lights, and the anticipation of the Big Payoff. They count their presents and each
other’s presents, regardless of individual cost, as they desperately need to be The One with
the Most Gifts. My mind jumps a gap into their adulthood, when they look back at their own
Christmases, and feel like they were always lacking, in some intangible way that they are unable
to identify. As their stepmother, I just want them to be happy, but as a mother, I wish I could
tear the materialistic pressure of Christmas away for them and fill them up with strength and
the knowledge that they are just loved unconditionally. I wish I could celebrate time off and
togetherness as I instinctively feel as a parent, and not as my current environment dictates I
Last year, my husband and I invented “Store Bunke Chokolade-dag”. The boys were used
to celebrating Advent, and my daughter was not. When I asked them what Advent was, they
questioningly answered, “We get presents?” So we all went to the library, took out some books,
and tried to figure out the meaning of Advent and Christmas, together. We now collect all of
the Advent chocolate that they’re handed throughout the month, I add some more M&M’s and
Summerbird candies, and then we divide the pile into three (with a small amount reserved for the
grownups), and they go crazy. This is usually followed by several hours of sledding, and general
running in circles.
Christmas would be perfect, I think, if there were no gifts and no expectations. We would be just
as happy if we could celebrate time off with our families and bake cookies with our kids, and
come in, red-faced and smiling, after playing in the snow, without any pressure.
Christmas is for me, instead, a time of wishes unfulfilled, a time of insecurity, and a time of
wishing things were different, and simpler.