Copenhagen City Hall

Our socks soggy from slushing around through Tivoli Gardens on a Sunday afternoon, we struck out in search of the Radhusarkaden branch of Irma, one of Copenhagen’s fancier supermarket chains. Sundays are traditionally a sleepy affair across much of Europe, Denmark included, and many shops, even restaurants, were closed or closing soon. We hoped Irma was still open; wandering around grocery stores in foreign cities is something we always enjoy and often one of the first things we do.

We’d spent the morning tromping through quiet and clean Malmo, just across the Denmark-Sweden border, then taken a long, meandering walk up through Vesterboro, from Enghave Station, before strolling through Tivoli for an hour so. After all this time spent outdoors on a chilly day in late November, nothing sounded better than a hot shower, a bottle of red wine, a fresh baguette, and some Danish blue cheese back at the hotel. Plus, according to our guidebook, Radhuspladsen (which we had to cross to get to Irma) was apparently one of the few spots in the city where the hot-dog vendors also sold pommes frites.

I’m not sure if Irma was open because we couldn’t find it. We did, however, find something else, or should I say somebody else: Father Christmas himself. Irma now but a wistful fantasy, I wondered whether the jolly old fat man might have some spare cheese, bread, and wine in his sack of goodies; I was certainly good this year. Honest.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Though we’d spent the better part of our visit to Copenhagen swept up in the city’s irresistable Christmas spirit, somehow we’d missed the memo about one of the season’s signature events: the tree-lighting ceremony in front of City Hall, which was taking place that weekend, exactly four Sundays before The Big Night, just as it has every year for the past 95 years. The festivities begin with a slow parade from Nyhaven down the high street, Father Christmas and his wife the stars of the show and perched atop a fire truck, and concluded with the guest of honor flipping the tree’s light switch.

The parade we unfortunately missed, but we worked our way towards the front of the crowd, towards the tree, to catch the grand finale. An all-male brass orchestra, endearingly ragtag in their execution of old-time Christmas songs, stood huddled together near the base of the tree in a pack of black coats and hats, black slacks, golden buttons, and grey hair. Languid firemen made idle conversation as they stood by the fire truck, which had its turntable ladder fully extended to the tip of the tree.

The crowd grew fuller as 4pm approached. Spazzed-out kids, no longer just sensing that Christmas was near but now seeing it and hearing it everywhere, spilled over from Tivoli with parents in tow, many of whom clutched warming cups of aromatic glogg. And Father Christmas himself worked the crowd with the cheer and enthusiasm of a presidential candidate on a victory lap, shaking hands with kids and adults alike, smiling, waving, and no doubt taking last-minute mental notes about who was acting naughty and nice.

The band stopped playing, and an anticipatory hush fell over the crowd. The stern voice of an officious Danish woman boomed over the loud speakers, and, finally, Father Christmas began his deliberate ascent up the ladder. He paused every now and again to wave, and I couldn’t help but think how scarring it would be for all those children–hell, for all of us–if he made one false step and plummeted to his death.

Hey, those were big, clumsy black boots he was wearing, it was cold out, there were a lot of rungs, and he had to worry himself with carrying what looked like a ceremonial staff, too—it could happen.

Lighting of the Christmas Tree in Copenhagen

It didn’t happen, however, and a few short moments after Father Christmas reached the zenith of his climb, the clock atop City Hall gonged 4pm. I expected a symbolic wave of the wand and a fairly anticlimatic conclusion to all this pageantry, but Copenhagen’s tree was lit not with a yawn but with a brilliant shower of fire.

Father wasn’t carrying a willy-nilly trinket—he was wielding some sort of blowtorch, which he used to light a large anise-shaped star that reigned sparks down upon the crowd. (Again, I feared for Father’s safety and wondered how flammable his costume was.)

The band struck back into song, the crowd oohed, aahed, and clapped, and Father carefully picked his way back down the ladder. Christmas was officially just around the corner in Copenhagen, but contrary to what we’d read in our guidebook, there were no hot dog stands at Radhuspladsen selling pommes frites.

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Copenhagen photos © Brian Spencer and cannot be used or reprinted without permission.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.