Day 23 of 30. One thing that's strange about living in Denmark is the uniformity of tradition. There are specific beats in the year, marked with precise rituals and songs, accompanied by set menus whose dishes reach back into the nebulous before. Herring, for instance, a fish that also turns out to be high in vitamin D, and therefore uniquely suited to meeting the Danish Health Authority's vitamin D recommendations - it gets a prominent place in many winter feasts. (I wonder if the Vikings, who were also voracious consumers of herring, noticed that the winter seemed more bearable and full of life when they ate the oily fish.)
Around holidays, lunch talk at the office often turns to questions of tradition. What's it like where you come from? And as a Canadian-American, I then have to explain: compared to Denmark, there are scant few places in the North American calendar where you have one tradition. Living in Toronto, where the city motto is "Diversity Our Strength", we would refer to winter vacation time as "winter holidays", or the even more inclusive "winter break" - because you had in that city of 6 million entire communities who perhaps celebrated Hanukkah, or Eid, or Chinese New Year, or Diwali, or a thousand thousand other traditions, or perhaps eschewed religious ceremonies altogether, and it felt presumptuous to suggest that Christmas was the one true holiday.
Danes have no such scruples. In 2021, immigrants accounted for 16.2% of Copenhagen's population, compared to 46.6% in Toronto. And here in Denmark, as in Canada and the US, the large urban centres are more cosmopolitan by far than smaller cities and rural areas. As someone with many friends who don't celebrate Christmas, I still find it hard to refer to the Christmas break - but that's what they call it here.
Of course, Toronto's old motto was "Industry - Intelligence - Integrity", and it came with this gem of heraldry that managed to be both racist and confusing, in the way only old colonial powers could manage:
And so we come to Thanksgiving, a tradition rooted in colonial times that has become one of the few common beats in the North American calendar, with its own prescriptions on rituals and dishes.
Well, not quite: Canadian Thanksgiving is roughly a month earlier than American Thanksgiving, and Native and Indigenous peoples have long questioned the narrative around Thanksgiving, and there are many who couldn't care less about Black Friday or Thanksgiving Day Football. There might be the gold standard of Thanksgiving turkey, and associated rituals of pardon (at least in the US) - but smaller gatherings might choose smaller birds like duck, while vegetarian and even vegan offerings have become more popular lately.
Perhaps that's part of it: deep down, North Americans never really have believed in the One True Way to celebrate anything. And so here, as in many other parts of life, perhaps we're really celebrating a myth of rugged individualism. I can definitely see and feel the contrast with Danish Christmas celebrations, which themselves reflect cultural myths of insular community. The menu is delicious and dependable (provided you're into heaps of meat and fish), the activities drawn from a short list of acceptable Christmas diversions, the mood carefully hovering around hygge, all differences and disagreements almost forcibly set aside.
Still, however you choose to engage with this moment, I can't deny that it was wonderful to gather a dozen people, load the table with food (including both meat and vegetarian options), and celebrate - well, perhaps just celebrate living, and being together, and doing pretty OK for ourselves all things considered.
Maybe we could use more special occasions that aren't pre-loaded with meaning, with pomp and circumstance - just an excuse to eat and drink and chat and focus on this group, this moment, a moment of simplicity that can seem elusive in a world of urgency, wonder, distraction, and ever-growing complexity. Maybe we need those occasions, more now than ever.