December is—at least in the northern hemisphere—the darkest time of the year. The winter solstice, which falls on Dec. 21 this year, marks the calendar’s longest night, and the late sunrises and early sunsets leading up to it leave many feeling lethargic or downright depressed. It’s no surprise, then, that for centuries humans have pushed back against the darkness with holiday lights of one sort or another, finding comfort in the act of illuminating a tree, a menorah, or a whole-house technicolor extravaganza against the gloom.
In Denmark, winter darkness is particularly brutal, but the Danes have developed a lovely lighting ritual of their own to combat it—the kalenderlys, or Christmas calendar candle. I was introduced to this custom by my Danish friend Anne Hermann, a journalist and university instructor based in Copenhagen, when she gave one to my partner and me as a gift. The kalenderlys is charming in its simplicity: A tall candle is printed with the days between Dec. 1 and Christmas Eve; you burn it each day, just enough to keep up with the calendar. By Christmas, the candle will be mostly burned down, but you’ll have spent a nice portion of the preceding 24 days reflecting on the season and looking forward to the big celebration to come.
I’ve been lighting my kalenderlys in the evenings this year, but Hermann explained in an email that most Danish families light theirs—and everyone has one, she insisted—during breakfast. “Often, kids of the family will make the decoration of clay in which the candle is standing,” she added. “It usually includes tiny branches of spruce and spruce cones, plus ribbons, etc.” Hermann and her boyfriend are minding their kalenderlys in the mornings as well. “I like the hygge element of lighting a candle in the dark mornings, and there’s a great sentimental value to it as it reminds me of my childhood,” she said.
Hygge—which devoted Slate readers will recall experienced a surge of American interest this fall—is a Danish aesthetic concept that means something like physical coziness cosseted in nostalgia. Hermann told me that hygge must include candlelight, and so the kalenderlys fits right in. It also satisfies an apparent love in Danes for countdowns around Christmas. In addition to the kalenderlys, the Danish enjoy annual television and radio specials comprising 24 episodes—Hermann was aware of five programs running this year—and physical calendars for kids (julekalendar) that reveal a piece of candy for each day or even small presents (pakkekalender).
I asked Hermann what she thought accounted for the popularity of the kalenderlys. “There are two elements, I think,” she replied. “Danes are crazy about candles and hygge … but there’s also the countdown to lighter days. At the moment, the sun sets at 3:30 p.m!”
Days may not be quite that short where I live in New York, but the season does wear on you after a while. My kalenderlys is a small but potent antidote to the melancholy, and a daily reminder during the hectic holidays to pause and be grateful for warmth—whether from family, friends, or a simple candle. The sun will be back soon enough; in the meantime, it’s worth taking pleasure in the light we create for ourselves.