POPULATION: 5 million

LANGUAGE: Danish; English; German

RELIGION: Christianity (Evangelical Lutheran Church; small numbers of Roman Catholics); Judaism


Danes live in Denmark, a country that is part of Scandinavia (the region that also includes Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden). Denmark has one of the world's highest standards of living. Danes pay high taxes, but the government uses the money to provide many social benefits such as free health care. The country's principal port, the capital city of Copenhagen, is a leading center of international trade. No one in Denmark lives farther than 32 miles (52 kilometers) from the sea. As a result, Danes have been sailors and merchants since about AD 800. Denmark is a constitutional monarchy, a form of government where a king or queen rules according to a written constitution. Queen Margrethe II (1940–) took the throne in 1972 and continued to rule as of 1998.


Situated between the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, Denmark consists of the peninsula of Jutland and over 400 nearby islands, of which about 100 are inhabited. Denmark also governs Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Denmark's capital city, Copenhagen, is located on the nation's largest island, Zealand (Sjaelland). The Danish landscape is characterized by gently rolling hills and flat plains. The lowest points in the country, on the western coast, are below sea level. Dikes (artificially constructed banks of earth) reclaim the land for agricultural use. The longest river is the Guden, and many small lakes dot the land.

About 85 percent of the 5 million Danes live in cities. Over one-third live in the four largest cities: Copenhagen, Aalborg, Odense, and Arhus. Danes are among the most ethnically homogeneous people in Europe. One out of every thirteen Danes has the last name of Jensen.


Danish, a Germanic language, is the official language of Denmark. The people of Greenland speak Greenlandic, a language that is similar to the one spoken by native Canadian people. Faroe Islanders speak Faroese, a distant relative of Danish. English and German are widely spoken. Regional dialects (variations on the language) can vary greatly, so that people in Copenhagen have difficulty understanding the Jutlanders (southern Danes).

Here are some common words and their Danish pronunciations.


English Danish Pronunciation
one en/et ANE
two to tOE
three tre tRA, with short a
four fire FEE-oh
five fem fEHm
six seks sEHgs
seven syv sOO
eight otte AW-der
nine ni NI, as in bit
ten ti TI, as in bit


English Danish Pronunciation
Sunday Søndag SURN-dah
Monday Mandag MAHNdah
Tuesday Tirsdag TAIRS-dah
Wednesday Onsdag OWNS-dah
Thursday Torsdag TORR-ess-dah
Friday Fredag FREH-dah
Saturday Lørdag LUHR-dah


In Scandinavian legend, the god Thor was said to cause thunder by wielding a hammer in the heavens. Vikings (seafarers or pirates of Scandinavia) wore miniature hammers around their necks in his honor. Beautiful maidens called Valkyries were thought to transport Vikings killed in battle to the court of Odin—the leader of the gods—at Valhalla. (Much Viking mythology was later re-popularized in the operas of the nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner [1813–83].)

During a later period of Danish history, the red and white national flag, the Dannebrog, was said to have descended from heaven on June 15, 1219, turning the tide in the Danes' battle against Estonia at Lindanaes.

According to legend, witches are thought to fly over Denmark on Midsummer's Eve, and on Midsummer's Day (June 24) firecrackers are traditionally set off all over the country to scare them off. The Danes traditionally believe that storks bring good fortune. The beech tree is something of a national emblem.

"Virtue Is Its Own Reward" is a bleak cautionary tale and appears in many variations around Scandinavia. The Danish version is especially grim and difficult to rationalize with the modern Danish belief in social egalitarianism and virtue. The tale is as follows:

A man was working in the woods collecting firewood when he came upon a snake wedged in the crevice of a tree. The snake asked the man to set him free, but the man said that to do so would be foolish, "for you are surely to bite me if I do." The snake assured the man that he would not hurt him and, reluctantly, the man set it free. Sure enough, the minute it was free, the snake coiled and prepared to bite the man.

"You see," he said, "I knew that you were evil; that my good deed would be repaid with evil."

But the snake replied that such was the way of the world. "Don't blame me; good deeds are always repaid with evil."

The man argued, saying that good deeds were not always repaid with evil. "Virtue," the man said, "brings virtue."

The snake scoffed at the man's simplicity and suggested they get another opinion. They wandered out into a meadow where they came upon an old horse, and the snake asked him if good deeds were well rewarded in the real world or not. The horse said that good deeds are not rewarded in this world and told a sad tale of serving his master well and dutifully for many years, only to be put out to pasture when he was no longer healthy. "No," the old horse said, "good deeds are never well rewarded."

The snake thanked the horse again and prepared to bite the man, but the man said they should ask somebody else. They came upon a fox and, again, the snake asked whether good deeds were rewarded with good or evil. The man whispered to the fox that if he said they were rewarded with good he would bring him two geese, but before he could even answer, the fox pounced on the snake, biting into its neck. Before dying, the snake looked up at the man and said, "You see, I was right. I spared your life and for that good deed I am killed." And the fox ate the snake.

The man then told the fox to come home with him and he would give him the two geese he promised. The fox refused, however, saying that the man would repay his good deed by setting his dogs on him. The man protested, but the fox would not believe him, so the man went home to his wife and told her the story. He said she should pack two geese into a sack for him to take to the fox. Instead, she put two fierce terriers into the sack. When the man got back to the woods, he told the fox, "You see, your good deed is being repaid with good." But when the fox opened the sack, the terriers leapt at his throat, killing the fox.

"You see," he said before he died. "The snake was right: good deeds are rewarded with bad."


Denmark was the first Nordic country to adopt Christianity as its official religion under King Harald Bluetooth (c.910–c.985) in the tenth century. Over 90 percent of modern Danes belong to the state-sponsored Evangelical Lutheran Church, although only 5 percent regularly attend services. Although the Church is supported by the state, Danes have the freedom to practice any religion and larger cities have Catholic churches, synagogues, and mosques.


Aside from the standard holidays of the Christian calendar, the Danes celebrate Store Bededag (Prayer Day) on the fourth Friday after Easter, Liberation Day (May 5), Ascension Thursday (the fortieth day after Easter), Constitution Day (June 5), and Whitmonday (the seventh Monday after Easter). Many children watch the parade of the royal guard at Amalienborg Square in Copenhagen on Queen Margrethe's birthday (April 16), a school holiday.

A holiday for Danish children—comparable to Halloween in the United States—is the Monday before Shrove Tuesday. On this day, children dress up in traditional costumes and visit their neighbors asking for money to buy candy.

The Danes also celebrate American Independence Day (July 4) in honor of Americans of Danish descent. Thousands attend homecoming festivities including concerts, rallies, and lectures.


Denmark, like most of its European neighbors, is a modern, industrialized country. Many of the rites of passage that young people undergo are connected with their progress through the education system. Additionally, Christian religious rituals such as baptism, confirmation, and marriage are important to those who observe them.

The Danes place special emphasis on birthdays, which are celebrated in youth with parties much like those of the United States. After their eighteenth birthday, Danish men become eligible to serve in the army. A lottery is held to select recruits for the armed forces from among those eligible.


Danish manners are more formal than those in the United States. There is a great deal of polite handshaking, and men raise their hats as a gesture of respect. The word tak ("thank you") is used often and can also mean "please" or "I beg your pardon."

Two or more Danes drinking together offer the courteous toast of "Skol." Professional titles such as "Doctor" or "Master" are commonly used in addressing people. Danes tend to be organized and punctual. To those they don't know well, Danes may appear to be cool or standoffish.


English Danish Pronunciation Pronunciation
hello goddag go-DAH
goodbye farvel FAH-vel
yes ja ya
no nej neye
thank you tak tag
you're welcome selv tak SEL tag
take it easy! bare rolig BAH-reh ROH-lig


With its extensive system of social services, Denmark has one of the world's highest standards of living. Most Danes own their own houses or apartments. Danish homes are made of brick and wood or of stucco. Homes typically have light furniture and few wall hangings. The spare, graceful Danish furniture popular throughout the world is made of beautifully finished wood and is characterized by its gently curving lines.

Complete medical care is provided free of charge to all Danish citizens. There is one physician for every three hundred people, one of the best ratios in the world. Life expectancy averages seventy-five years. The major causes of death are heart disease and cancer.


Danes' social lives tend to focus largely on the nuclear family, although to a somewhat lesser degree than those of their Scandinavian neighbors. Most couples live together before marriage, a practice that is generally accepted. In fact, many Danish marriages are "paperless" common-law unions with no formal ceremony. At least half of all Danish marriages end in divorce, and single-parent families are common. On average, men marry at about age thirty-three and women at about thirty. Since 1988 homosexual couples have been entitled to the same rights as married heterosexual couples.

The Danish monarchy may be inherited by either a woman or a man. The Danish Women Citizen's Society, created in 1871, works to further women's rights. Danish women gained the right to vote in 1915. Housewives have their own association, whose activities parallel those of professional groups.


The Danes wear modern Western-style clothing, dressing formally for business and casually for less formal activities. Among young people, casual dress typically includes leather jackets, T-shirts, and jeans.

The traditional costume, worn most often by folk dancers, consists of (for women) blouses and jackets decorated with gold and silver stitching, layered petticoats, scarves, and bonnets. Men's costumes consist of sweaters, jackets, and knickers (pants that come to just below the knee) worn with high, white woolen socks.

12 • FOOD

Danish food includes a wide variety of fish, meat, bread, cheese, and crispbreads. The Danes usually eat four meals a day: a breakfast of cereal, cheese, or eggs; lunch; a hot dinner that includes fish or meat; and a late supper. Lunch may include open-faced sandwiches called smørrebrød (smerbrerth), consisting of thin slices of bread with toppings such as smoked salmon or eel, tongue, ham, shrimp, caviar, eggs, or cheese. A popular spread for the smørrebrød is apple-onion lard, a distinctly Danish concoction.

Danes consume 40 gallons (150 liters) of beer per person each year, the highest rate in Scandinavia. Aquavit (snaps), a spiced liqueur flavored with caraway seeds, is a popular after-dinner drink. The Danish place great emphasis on arranging their food so it is visually attractive as well as tasty. The popular smørrebrød may be garnished with twists of cucumber, tomato, dill weed, beets, citrus fruit, or onion rings.


Apple-Onion Lard


  • 1 pound lard
  • 2 onions, thinly sliced or chopped
  • 2 apples, thinly sliced or chopped
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper


  1. Combine ingredients in a saucepan.
  2. Over low heat, melt lard with onions, apples, and spices.
  3. Simmer for about 30 minutes.
  4. Cool, stirring often, and pour into stoneware container. Refrigerate.

Serve as a spread on thin-sliced pumpernickel or white bread.

The ritual of eating is also very important. There is a Danish saying that meals are for being with family as much as for eating. This is especially true for the late supper, often the only meal the entire family will share.


Free primary, secondary, and for most students, postsecondary education are funded by high taxes. Most children attend folkeskole (FOLK-es-sko-lah), the government-funded schools system, from pre-school to the ninth grade. Danish schools are unique, because one teacher teaches the same group of students for all nine years of their schooling.

After the ninth grade, students take an exam to qualify them for gymnasium (a school that prepares students for university) or for technical training school. Denmark has five major universities. The oldest and largest is the University of Copenhagen, founded in 1479. Others include Aarhus University and Odense University.


The Royal Danish Ballet was founded in 1829. The music compositions of Carl Nielsen, Denmark's most-renowned composer, are performed throughout the world.

Among Danish writers, the most famous is Hans Christian Andersen (1805–75), the author of such beloved fairy tales as "The Ugly Duckling," "The Emperor's New Clothes," and "The Red Shoes." In the twentieth century, Karen Dinesen (Baroness Blixen-Finecke), who wrote under the pen name of Isak Dinesen (1885–1962), gained renown for her memoir, Out of Africa. Robert Redford (1932–) and Meryl Streep (1949–) starred in the film version of her story. Two Danish movies have won Academy Awards for Best Foreign Picture: Babette's Feast (1988), and Pelle the Conqueror (1989).

Danes are renowned for their experimental architecture. Jorn Utzon (1918–), a Danish architect, designed the Sydney (Australia) Opera House.


Most Danes work in businesses with fewer than 100 employees. Altogether, about 70 percent of the labor force is employed in the service sector, 27 percent in industry, and only 4 percent in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. About 85 percent of the Danish labor force belong to labor unions.

The work week in Denmark averages forty-four hours with five weeks of paid vacation annually. Unemployment benefits equal up to 90 percent of a worker's weekly pay. Parents (both mother and father) are eligible for fourteen weeks of paid maternity leave following the birth of a child. A law requiring equal pay for men and women has been in effect since 1973. Workers must be at least sixteen years old.


An estimated 300,000 Danes play soccer (fodball). Children play it at school, after school, and on weekends and holidays. Volunteer-run clubs throughout the country are dedicated to turning young players into pros. At least one out of every four Danes belongs to a sports club of some kind.

The proximity of the sea has bred an interest in water sports, including sailing, rowing, and swimming. Other popular activities include rugby, tennis, handball, archery, fencing, cycling, skiing, and rifle shooting. Every year, Athletics Awards sponsored by Queen Margrethe II are presented to men and women who have passed qualifying tests based on age.


The Danish people enjoy spending leisure time with their families, whether they are attending a sporting event or observing a holiday. The most popular spectator sport is soccer (fodball) , with the main national rival being Sweden. Danes often enjoy athletic activities such as jogging, cycling, or long-distance running purely for exercise rather than competition. Bridge (a card game) and chess are also popular leisure-time pursuits. Large numbers of bridge fans attend national tournaments featuring the top players.

The Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, which opened in 1834, is a popular cross between a city park and an amusement park. Visitors can ride rides, enjoy a concert or fireworks display, or view the gardens and fountains. Legoland Amusement Park in Billund is open from May through September. Visitors can ride rides and view the creations built on a 1:20 scale from over 40 million Lego bricks.


Folk dancing is popular in Denmark, with about 15,000 men and women participating on a regular basis. The Danish Country Dancing Society, one of the best-known folk dance troupes, has been in existence since 1901. Crafts include work in silver, glass, porcelain, and pewter, as well as textiles. Modern Danish furniture was pioneered in the 1930s. Denmark has an outstanding system of folk museums, including rural and urban buildings that are centuries old and which have been moved to park settings.


The challenges facing Denmark include unemployment and high prices for goods. In the late 1990s, workers and government were cooperating in an effort to control prices by limiting wage increases.


Bendure, Glenda. Denmark. Hawthorn, Australia: Lonely Planet, 1996.

Denmark in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1991.

Gall, Timothy, and Susan Gall, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. Detroit: UXL, 1996.

Hintz, Martin. Denmark. Enchantment of the World series. Chicago: Children's Press, 1994.

Pateman, Robert. Denmark. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.

Taylor-Wilkie, Doreen. Denmark. Insight Guides. Singapore: APA Press, 1992.


Consulate General of Denmark in New York. [Online] Available http://www.denmark.org , 1998.

Royal Danish Embassy. [Online] Available http://www.denmarkemb.org/ , 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/dk/gen.html , 1998.

Also read article about Danes from Wikipedia

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