Do you know how Chicago was founded? It was a bunch of New Yorkers who said, “You know, I love the crowds and pollution and crime and filth and high prices here in New York, but dammit, the winters just aren’t cold enough...”
That’s one of two classic Chicago jokes I know. (I’ll get to the other one later.) That one’s always stayed with me because I first heard it a day or two after moving to Chicago in the frigid March of 1985. I was a young college dropout moving in with a bunch of other college dropouts to start a theatre company. I got the joke, but it also got me thinking: why had I moved to Chicago? I was young and free-spirited, open to adventure, and could have moved anywhere. Why that windy, frozen wasteland instead of, say, Miami or Phoenix or San Diego? It was a question I had plenty of time to contemplate when the lack of running water in our industrial loft compelled us to bathe in Lake Michigan.
I was a restless and nomadic young man. After about a year in Chicago I moved back to New England for a while, then bounced around the country for a couple of decades before finally landing in Denmark in 2003. (Okay, I was a restless and nomadic middle aged man, too.) Sooner or later, the same question has struck me in every city and town I ever called home: why here? (It didn’t hit me in L.A. until I experienced my first earthquake.)
Yes, friendly reader, even in Denmark.
I hated Denmark for the first few months I lived here. It was gray and cold and rainy. I didn’t like the sound of the language. The food was weird; grocery stores were museums of the bizarre. Everything cost too much. The only shows I could understand on television were Charmed and JAG. All my electronics needed adapters or transformers and I wasn’t very clever at that kind of thing so all my electronics kept blowing up.
In moving to Denmark it had been cheaper for Herself and I to buy round-trip tickets instead of one-way; we’d never had any intention of using the return flights, but I guarded mine fiercely and more than once threatened to use it. I felt I’d been the victim of a massive bait and switch: this charming beauty with those big blue eyes had lured me to the paradise that had spawned her, promising a year of happy adventure in her enchanted little kingdom… and instead I found myself in a frigid, soggy, overpriced little hell whose native tongue made me want to rip the ears off my head.
Spring came along slowly, as it does here, and day by day Denmark revealed a little more of herself to me. She was like a shy and blushing lover, sharing only the tiniest glimpses of herself here and there, and now and then, until suddenly one day in early June she stood before me in all her splendor: blossoming and blooming and radiant in her days of endless sunshine.
Denmark still retained, or seemed to me to retain, something I can only describe as innocence: it was a country where grown men sang to their families at picnics in public parks and grandmothers went biking into the woods to gather elderflowers. It was a fairy tale country full of castles, with a capital city whose worst neighborhoods made our old neighborhoods in New York and Chicago look like hell holes.
I met expats from America and other nations who said Danes seemed cold and aloof to them, and I understood what they meant: but I was raised in New England and was used to having to chip away at stony surfaces to reach the jeweled insides of people. And I suppose I can be a little stony myself, now and then.
Had I been stony or insensible enough not to have been won over by the Danish spring, the summer won me over completely. It was an uncharacteristically warm and sunny summer, but I didn’t know that. I thought: “This is why you’re here: the country is so perfect in summer that those awful Marches and Aprils are necessary to keep the country from becoming overpopulated. If every month was like June, Denmark would have the population of Brazil.” It was years before I realized “sommer” is usually just Danish for “the best two weeks of the year.”
It isn’t just that summer is a glorious (and often surprisingly short) season in Denmark: it’s that Danes are glorious in summer. The quiet, miserable wretches that had been scuttling around and bumping into me and scowling at me on the streets and in the stores seem to blossom along with the beech and birch trees: come summer, they were outside and active and smiling, wearing the least clothing possible (and wearing it well); playing in the waves at the beach, running and biking through the forests, gathering around outdoor café tables, picnicking in the public parks and gardens. The Danes are an exuberantly outdoor people and it’s infectious.
Herself and I were married one beautiful August evening on the steps of an 800-year-old church in the middle of Copenhagen.
Autumn came, which saddened me a little, and as we got into November and the days began to shorten and the rains began to fall, I felt little pangs of dread: the midnight sun of the spring and summer had given me insomnia, so I wasn’t sure how I’d cope with the months of darkness I knew to expect from my first Danish winter. I braced for the Seasonal Affective Disorder that all the travel books had warned me about.
As the darkness deepened into December, Herself surprised me one evening by dragging me into Tivoli as soon as she got home from work. We toured the Christmas Wonderland that is Tivoli in December, nibbling at æbleskiver and sipping gløgg while browsing the stalls of ornaments and candies and arts and crafts of every kind. Finally she treated me to a fine Danish Christmas dinner at one of the restaurants. After dinner she asked me to finish her wine: the few sips she’d had were enough, she confessed. She was pregnant.
No dark winter ever felt so bright.
The child whose imminent arrival was announced to me that night is now in her first year at gymnasium, a radiant teenaged girl who is frankly really, really tired of hearing how the first time Daddy was in Tivoli at Christmas was the time Mor told him they were going to have a baby, and that baby turned out to be her. That girl has a little sister who is no less tired of the story.
The Elder was born in the summer of 2004, and I learned that no amount of light can induce insomnia when you’ve got a newborn around: when the opportunity to sleep presents itself, you sleep. And my second Danish winter was my first as a father: I finally had a child to spoil on Christmas, even if that child had no idea what the hell was going on. And I barely had time to notice the darkness.
The years raced by from there, as they do, and here we are.
I’m immensely happy here. I have no regrets. But around this time every year, when the last of the leaves have fallen from the trees, and the few hours of daylight we’re granted each day are a sickly ochre glow, and the rains sweep down upon us, and the wind sharpens its teeth, I hear the old familiar whisper: why here?
I feel it even more acutely this year. The Prime Minister imposed another round of lockdowns this past Monday. The kids are home through January 4 (at least). I’ve been working from home since March, with just a few weeks at the office in the summer and early fall. There’ll be no Christmas lunches this year. No Christmas parties of any kind. No school activities or open houses for the kids. No musicals or recitals. None of the usual handball tournaments over Christmas vacation. Tivoli just canceled its entire Christmas season this morning. The government is urging us to limit the size of our Christmas gatherings. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has herself urged us not to dance and sing around our Christmas trees, and we’re being urged to downplay our New Year’s festivities.
We’re in a cold, dark, bleak month, at the end of a bleak and terrible year, and we’re being asked to forego the very things that make the darkest days of the year endurable.
What I love about Denmark is that no one is going to forego those things. Precautions will be taken, yes, but Christmas will be Christmas or Denmark will not be Denmark. Every home in Denmark will be blazing with candles all month; families with children will gather around their televisions every evening to watch the Christmas Calendar shows, and those children will race out of bed each morning to tear into their Christmas advent calendars. Every Sunday of advent the families will gather around the adventskrans to light the candles, many of them singing as they do so:
Så tænder vi et lys i kvæld,
vi tænder det for glæde,
Det står og skinner for sig selv
og os, som er til stede,
Så tænder vi et lys i kvæld,
vi tænder det for glæde…
English (my own translation, sorry):
Thus light we a candle in twilight,
we light it for joy,
It stands and shines for itself
and us, who are gathered,
Thus light we a candle in twilight,
we light it for joy…
And on the 13th there will be thousands of beautiful Lucia processions around the country, with appropriate social distancing, and the lines of little girls in fine white robes and crowns will be stepping slowly and singing sweetly,
Nu bæres lyset frem
stolt på din krone
rundt om i hus og hjem
sangen skal tone
Nu på Lucia-dag
hilser vort vennelag
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia
Now is the light borne forth
proudly on your crown
all around in house and home
the song shall sound
Now on Lucia day
greets our fellowship
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia
A Santa Lucia procession is a thing of special beauty. As a father of two girls, I have been to more than I can count. I have been to processions of stumbling toddlers bumping into each other and forgetting the words, processions outdoors in the rain and in the snow, processions long and short, and every one of them has gripped my heart completely: it doesn’t matter if the girls are out of tune, it doesn’t matter if the wind blows out their candles, or if they carry electric lights instead of candles, or if their winding path gets tangled up in itself. It doesn’t matter if they’ve got snot all over their faces, or powdered sugar from a treat snarfed too close to show time, it doesn’t even matter if it’s raining so hard they have to wear rain gear over their white gowns: a Santa Lucia procession is a holy thing, it lifts the heart, it brings joy and even a kind of awe to all who behold it. It’s the antidote to cynicism.
And families will bake holiday pastries, and gather around the kitchen table to make konfekt: rolling soft chocolate, and nougat, and marzipan into whatever shapes may please their fancies, decorating them with little sugared candies, and almonds, and chocolate chips. Gløgg will be brewed and drunk. And come Christmas Eve, millions of Danish families will gather together and dine on pork roasts or duck, or both, with gravy and glazed potatoes and red cabbage, and afterwards they will form a circle around their Christmas tree and by god they will sing as they dance around it.
No Prime Minister has the power to stop that. No army does.
That it has been a dark year does not make the darkness of this winter any easier to bear, but that every Danish winter is dark has taught Danes how to keep a flame alight.
I grouse a lot about the Danish media on this blog. I’ve groused about more than that. Sometimes it’s important to stand back and appreciate the good things you’ve got, and I’ll tell you: when this American feels the winter darkness closing in, he appreciates the Danish genius for celebrating light in darkness.
You hear a lot from American politicians about the various bits and pieces of Denmark’s public policy they’d like to import into America. It’s stupid stuff. If we just had the sense to drop all our other gripes and focus on the light in our lives for one month a year, I suspect a great many other things would take care of themselves.
# # #
I think that would have been a lovely ending to this post, and I probably should have left it at that, but I promised I’d share the other classic Chicago joke I know.
It’s actually a bit of Windy City trivia: Can you name the three streets in Chicago that rhyme with vagina?
Medina, Paulina, and Lunt.
Sorry. Now cleanse your palate with the 2015 DR Girl’s Choir version of Santa Lucia…