“Danish Birthday Song”

            The informant’s maternal ancestry hails from Denmark, and although she has never lived in Denmark she has visited the country several times for extended periods and has maintained a strong Danish cultural presence in her lifestyle, especially around the holidays. For example, she strings up miniature Danish flags around her Christmas tree each year and makes æbleskiver, traditional Danish pancakes in the shape of little round balls, Christmas morning. Furthermore, one of her most treasured family heirlooms is a set of silverware engraved with the family crest as well as an ornate “N” for Nielsen, her mother’s maiden name, and a recognizably Danish one at that. She also sings a Danish song when celebrating family birthdays, and she shared the lyrics as well as the role the song has played in her own life. As a child, she remembered learning the song as a birthday song, but as she grew older she learned the song’s first line comes from a Danish drinking song, perhaps one that was sung in celebration. As the informant sang the song, she was sitting in her dining room table drinking coffee out of a china tea set her mother brought from Denmark.


            The first part “han skal leve”. . .I’m not positive about what it means but I believe it’s loosely translated as “may he live” or “may he live well.” The “hurra!” is the Danish way to say “hooray!” and I never understood what the ” højt” was for. I just know everyone said “højt quite loudly (she laughs heartily).
When we are celebrating a female’s birthday, the “bravo” verse is changed to “brava” and we say “bravissima” instead of “bravissimo.”

 Han skal leve, han skal leve, han skal leve, højt hurra!
Bravo, bravo, bravo bravissimo
Bravo, bravo, bravissimo
Bravo bravissimo, bravo bravissimo
Bravo, bravo, bravissimo.


            The informant’s close ties with her Danish roots are quite evident; Danish traditions and practices have seeped into several different aspects of her life. The confusion as to whether the song was originally sung in birthday celebration or while drinking seems typical for a family practice that has been passed down through generations―it can become increasingly difficult to discern when and why a song was first introduced into the family. In all likelihood, the song served both purposes. After all, it is quite common to pair drinking with a birthday party or celebration, and it was perhaps only because of her young age that she first associated the song exclusively with birthdays.

            The “may he live well” translation bestows good fortune or good health, though perhaps both―the interpretation of “well” is ambiguous―on the celebrating individual, which is not atypical for birthday celebrations across most cultures. However, the informant’s Danish family allows the party guests to seize an opportunity for good luck as well. She and her family prepare a layered Danish cake, inside which are hidden dimes, and anyone who bites or finds a dime while eating their cake is granted good luck for the week. This practice shifts focus from solely the celebrating individual to the party-goers as well; it is a more collectively engaging and participatory experience.