In my previous blog I speculated that the Danes use ritualistic feasting as a way of creating a shared sense of belonging, which is an important basis for social cooperation and trust. Last week I was able to make more detailed observations on one such collective ritual. During the period preceding Christmas there are a number of Christmas parties to which my colleagues went. I only went to two, but because most people have affiliations with several departments and institutes, they go to a number of them. (A sociologist in me notes that the function must be to increase bridging social capital, by maintaining a set of overlapping social networks).
Christmas in Aarhus (photo by the author)
These events are called Julefrokost (which means Christmas luncheon, but the one I went to started at 6 pm). The basic idea is a potluck, with different people assigned to bring different dishes. In this it was similar to the Christmas parties that Academic departments in the U.S. put together. A major difference, however, was that the event took place on campus, in one of the large teaching/meeting rooms. In the States you can’t do that, because there are regulations forbidding consumption of alcohol on premises, so we usually move it to a professor house.
Talking about alcohol, the consumption was prodigious. I think even a Russian would be impressed. We started with champagne, then most people switched to schnapps that was chased down by bear (I stayed away from bear, because it’s not Paleo), then we progressed to Porto. After that my wife and I left, but apparently celebrations went deep into the night. After a few of these events at various departments, I started hearing people around me moaning that they couldn’t take so much hard drinking…
Photo by the author
The food was excellent. A huge variety of really yummy kinds of herring, smoked salmon, roasted pork, and a lot of trimmings. We brought the Russian potato salad and pickled mushrooms that we picked earlier in the Fall in the local woods (this actually deserves a separate post…), and which my wife preserved for future consumption (we are still eating them).
Drinks were also excellent. I have not had previous experience with Akvavit (to which everybody referred to as schnapps). It’s basically vodka flavored with spices and herbs. We tried three different kinds. The first one was Linie Aquavit, which is made by sending the barrels with spirit back and forth to Australia. The story of how this recipe was discovered is one of famous ‘brilliant failures.’
Another one was Taffel Akvavit, produced in the city of Aalborg a short distance north from here. And I forget what was the name of the third one. All were very tasty (disclosure: I am not being paid by the distillers to advertize their products).
The important part is to look into the eyes of your drinking companions both before and after drinking. This procedure does wonders for building up interpersonal trust, especially after it is repeated 5-6 times. As the English proverb goes, “Drunkenness reveals what soberness conceals.” Russians have a very similar saying, “Что у трезвого на уме, то у пьяного на языке,” but the Romans, as usual, said it with the fewest words: In vino veritas.
Talking about proverbs, the Danes’ habit of chasing akvavit with beer reminds me of another Russian dictum: Vodka without beer – money down the drain.
But enough about consumables. Equally interesting were the proceedings during this feast. At the peak of the dinner, the head of the department fired up a projector and gave a presentation to all. The gist of it was that the University is in fiscal difficulties, and the department would have to fire five people next year. He then started discussing who specifically should be fired, projecting the CVs of particular people (sitting in the audience) on the screen. He went like this, “OK, perhaps we should fire Dr. X, he has hardly published any papers last year.” It was actually extremely funny, and everybody, including Dr. X was laughing heartily. I can’t imagine anything like this happening in my department, and I must say that the Danes (and Nordics in general) have validated in my eyes their reputation for black humor.
At one point, the department head seemed to come to a conclusion that since the department leadership, including himself, actually showed the lowest productivity, they should be fired first. This was an interesting example of social solidarity and leveling (as viewed from the sociological theory point of view).
The next presentation was absolutely “carnivalesque” (to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s term). It was now the turn of the department head to be lampooned. In a series of slides and videos he was portrayed as a bumbling Supreme Leader, while a North Korean TV announcer was describing his supposed accomplishments (in Korean, with quite hilarious English subtitles).
Of course, this turning the hierarchy upside down was not quite as impressive, as it must have been in a Medieval feudal society, because the Danish society even outside of Carnival is not particularly hierarchical (in fact, highly egalitarian). Still, it was a great fun.