The following conversation is transcribed from a conversation between me (HS) and my friend/informant (AB).
HS: So you have a certain tradition regarding birthday cakes in Denmark, is that right?
AB: Yes that’s correct. We have something called layer cakes. The layers are split with jam and sometimes a sort of pudding in the middle as well. It is reserved mostly for birthdays.
My informant is one of my friends from high school. He immigrated to the United States from Denmark when he was 15 and still carries on many aspects of his Danish culture. He is fluent in Danish and English.
I was at my informant’s house with him, his sister, and his parents. They were happy to elaborate on some of their Danish traditions.
My first thought that came to mind regarding the tradition of layered cakes in Danish culture was whether or not they put birthday candles on them. My curiosity regarding the dichotomy between Danish and American culture came into the limelight, and I found that they do. This led me to another question, though. Why do western cultures celebrate their birthdays with cake? Looking at this Danish tradition through the lens of this question made me realize that the celebration of birthdays with cake is the larger societal trend and that the Danish and American means of celebration are just derivatives of a larger cultural tradition.
The interviewee is one of my housemates and we often engage in conversation about his Danish heritage. This folklore is a food ritual that he practices as part of a family tradition.
following is transcribed from the story told by the interviewee.
Christmas eve we would eat pickled herring and rice pudding. The tradition is
that we would have a bowl of rice pudding and at the bottom of one of the bowls
there would be an almond. And whoever would get the almond would have good luck
the next year. And in order to celebrate this good luck, the person who got the
almond would get a marzipan pig. Sometimes if we got too lazy to go to the
store to buy the pig, we would just make a different animal out of marzipan.
Last year we made a penguin out of marzipan and I remember once we made a
spider. It’s just a fun thing that we would do every Christmas eve.”
This is a Danish tradition that serves to celebrate a festival. The ritual happens near the end of the dinner and is meant to bookend the festival by giving a person luck for the coming year. For the interviewee, this custom is very much about having a shared experience with the family, and one that is fun and wholesome. The tradition has clearly developed over the year, the family not just using a marzipan pig but allowing the children in the family to create new and interesting animals such as the spider or penguin. But ultimately, the spirit of the custom remains the same. On a cultural level, this custom helps enforce the end of a year and celebrate new beginnings.
Informant JA was a current undergraduate student at the University of Southern California at the time of this collection. Though JA was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, their mom’s maternal side of the family originates from Denmark. When speaking with JA, they mentioned that only one particular Danish food item seemed to have any familial importance growing up. Even though JA admits that their family simplifies the traditional Danish recipe, they said that the importance of this folk food tradition lies in the special pans that are used to cook it.
“Æbleskivers are like Danish pancakes.” JA described Æbleskivers as “pancake balls” and added that their family’s version is the same as regular pancakes compositionally—just in a different shape. They disclosed that their family’s batter recipe only involved generic pancake mix and water. To attain the ball shape of Æbleskivers, JA uses a pan with seven half-sphere indentations over a stove, and that pan is one from their late great-grandparents who have passed the pan down. Each indentation is buttered, filled with batter, and eventually flipped over once bubbles become visible after cooking for some time. A special fork with a handle resembling a banana is used to flip these pancake balls until they are spherical and golden brown. Upon serving, JA’s family only ever has strawberry jam and powdered sugar to dip the Æbleskivers in. JA learned from their maternal grandmother to dip the Æbleskiver in the jam first to coat it with stickiness and then the sugar to follow so it does not fall off.
Since his grandmother’s passing, JA makes Æbleskivers and said that they remind them of her and their childhood meals together. JA also mentioned that Æbleskivers often accompany special meals like birthday breakfasts or other celebratory breakfasts. The tradition of making Æbleskivers extends beyond the family, JA says. They have shown their friends how to make Æbleskivers and have had many others taste them.
After speaking with JA, they described how their family particularly cherishes breakfast since their family values quality time and beginning each day with one another. In the process of making this modern adaptation/variation of a Danish folk foodway, not only does it allow for the family to showcase their shared familial value of quality time, but it also demonstrates a reverence for their family’s history. Historically, foodways have allowed folk to distinguish and partake in their national identity. This contemporized foodway functions in that same way even though commercially bought goods are incorporated into its recipe. In utilizing pans that are passed down generationally, JA’s family is able to succeed in their efforts of maintaining familial values and remembering facets of their cultural identity
Æbleskivers are mentioned in another entry in the USC Digital Folklore archive. See here:
Egoian, Sonya, and Sonya Egoian. “University of Southern California.” USC Digital Folklore Archives, 14 May 2013, folklore.usc.edu/danish-birthday-song/.
Informant JA was a current undergraduate student at the University of Southern California at the time of this collection. Though JA was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, their mom’s maternal side of the family originates from Denmark. Christmas is an important holiday to JA’s family; it is a time of year for their extended family to gather and celebrate a year that is usually spent apart in respective nuclear families. At the time that Christmas decorations begin to go up outdoors, JA’s family decorates indoors and, besides a Christmas tree, has one main decoration: a Danish advent wreath.
JA described a shared family advent wreath that has four candles on it, and one candle is lit every Sunday before Christmas, starting four weeks before Christmas Day. Each of the four candles represents a value that his family cherishes, like love. A value is commemorated and focused on each of the four Sundays before Christmas Day.
JA mentioned that most advent wreaths are simple with green fir tree leaves and the occasional small, red ornaments. However, JA’s family gets creative with their annual wreath and incorporates purple into the red and green color scheme. Each year, their family takes a trip to their local arts and crafts store for unique decorative accents to put on the wreath, and even though this deviates from traditional wreaths, JA stated that this is what makes their tradition special to them compared to other Danish families. Though Christmas is partly celebrated weeks in advance of actual Christmas Day, JA added that their family’s true celebration is traditionally on Christmas Eve evening with his mom’s side of the family.
Unlink other genres of folklore, this holiday ritual is more explicit in the values it expresses. Since candles are lit to “represent” shared family values, one would not have to speculate what is deemed important for JA’s family. However, further analysis of this holiday ritual could reveal underlying values that go unspoken. By participating in this annual holiday ritual, JA and their family are engaging with a facet of their family heritage. Heritage does not require active participation and is present even when it goes unacknowledged. For JA’s family, this particular tradition showcases the unspoken value of engaging with family heritage while simultaneously providing a means for them to do so.
Informant: As far as traditions like that. My aunts are Danish, and we do this thing on Christmas eve where every person gets this like lemon dessert. Everyone in the house gets one, and only one has an almond underneath. I’ve never known what it’s supposed to represent or whatever, but the person with the almond has good luck for the rest of the year. Also, the person who gets the almond has to host the party for next year. We do that on Christmas Eve.
I asked a group of friends if they had any holiday traditions. This was one of their replies.
This is very similar to a game my neighborhood plays every year where a bundt cake is cut, and whoever has a plastic baby Jesus in their slice has to host the Christmas party the next year.