Enjoying an alternative Christmas Eve in Christiania


By Laurie Mittelmann

Enter this bustling, smoky auditorium on Christmas Eve and a scruffy man wearing a verdant green suit, a floppy velvet hat and a satin tie will shake your hand and kiss you on the cheek.

He’ll say, in Danish, “Happy Christmas Tree Day, though we don’t have a Christmas tree.”

Thomas Leth, a 29-year-old freelance photographer, came in and quickly found what he was looking for — a family away from his family to share warmth and intimacy with on the holiday. He had arrived in the heart of Christiania, a neighborhood of squatters in the center of Copenhagen where a community founded on reclaimed land, impromptu street theater and plain, old freewheeling can’t help but welcome strangers.

“I’m here to avoid a lonely Christmas,” Leth said, in between mouthfuls of pork tenderloin, red cabbage and potatoes with gravy.

Leth was one of more than a thousand people who came to attend the dinner, which the city of Copenhagen funded along with Christiania, a village of about 850 adults and 200 children living on 85 acres of land in the quiet borough of Christianshavn.

For some people, Christiania is a place to party. Tables with hash dot the commercial zone near the public entrance, the infamous “Pusher Street.” But for others, the village is simply a place to relax, free of traffic and its accompanying noise, pollution and danger.

Leth sat cross-legged against a wall in the Gray Hall, which was packed on Christmas Eve with Danes biting into chocolate heart-shaped cookies, leaning back in folding chairs with fat, glowing joints and scooching between tables with steaming cups of coffee and tea. He smoothed his shaggy hair away from his face and stared out at those passing before him.

“People want to enjoy another type of Christmas here,” Leth said, with a tug at his bootlaces. He straightened his legs and rested his feet against one of the wooden beams supporting the building, which the Danish military once used for training horses. “It’s what Christiania is about — creating a new meeting place for outcasts or strangers — people who don’t conform.”

Indeed, Christiania is so open that it can sometimes be hard to tell who actually lives there and who doesn’t. Erik Bowbender, who donned a bright orange suit and helped greet and direct guests at the Christmas Eve dinner, used to work driving a bus between Christiania and Copenhagen’s railway station.

“I saw these old Christianites who I had seen for many years and I thought had houses somewhere in Christiania, but they didn’t,” he said. “They came in every morning on the train and then were sitting down at the bar all day, talking with friends.”

Christiania started in 1971, when locals spotted apples growing on trees amongst disused army barracks and crawled through a hole in a fence to pick them. They stumbled upon dozens of buildings equipped with furniture, tools, dishes, silverware, tea and coffee, and called the area a “forgotten city.” Those in need of homes barricaded its roads, outlawed cars, guns and hard drugs and moved into the dilapidated horse stables, laboratories and offices.

The community runs without elected officials. Instead, residents gather in large meetings in the Gray Hall, where consensus rulings determine the squat’s policies. Sometimes discussions go all night without agreements being reached, however, leaving conflicts to be mediated in Christiania’s bathhouse.

For families and loners alike, spirits remained lighthearted in the Gray Hall on Christmas Eve. At the end of one table, a middle-aged man wearing a fur hat with a pin that said “LUST” on it sat fingering a handful of marzipan candies.

“I ate dinner here tonight, went home to smoke a joint and nap, and returned,” the man said, with a sip of herbal tea. He swayed to a rock band performing near the front of the room, on a stage backed with a wall of multicolored flowers. More than a hundred white paper butterflies hung from the auditorium’s ceiling, along with several white dresses glowing from lights mounted inside them.

When Leth finished his pork dinner, he rushed for a second plate. Volunteers served 1,500 meals over the course of the evening, including vegetarian ones, with baked polenta topped with pesto, tofu spring rolls and carrot salad with pumpkin seeds.

Even dessert promised something for everyone’s taste, with countless varieties of cookies, pastries and cakes. Volunteers also poured rice pudding into bowls from a massive vat, and garnished the warm, creamy dessert with spoonfuls of cinnamon and sugar. An elderly, white-haired woman peered out from behind spectacles and said, “Oops,” when she dumped nearly half a cup of the topping into a young girl’s dish, smiled and pushed it toward her.

Søren Raa, 60, who has helped organize the Christmas Eve dinner since 1982, dressed for the evening with a red tweed coat over a bright blue shirt and a snowman tie. He stood at the back of the Gray Hall with a tall glass of beer when the night wore on and the hall emptied of visitors from Copenhagen and Jutland.

“The worst day for a lot of people without relatives is Christmas Day and night,” he said. “It’s terrible to be alone.”

Di Ponti, 28, who moved to Copenhagen from Portugal six years ago to study how people share knowledge online, was one of 150 volunteers who made the event a success. Toward the end of the night, she perched on a wooden trunk behind the dessert table, munched on a spring roll and laughed with friends who had served food beside her that evening.

“I don’t like normal Christmas. It’s a lot of pressure with the gifts,” she said, adjusting her top hat. “When I came here, I saw that it could be something beautiful again.”