Europe

Christmas in Copenhagen: A Saint Lucia Day Celebration

I normally like to take a break in between travel series to catch up a little on what we’ve been doing in London and what not, but seeing as it’s already February, I figure I better go ahead and jump right into Christmas in Copenhagen before it gets even more silly to be talking about the holidays when it’s almost spring.

Our December trip to Copenhagen wasn’t a long one – just three days and three nights, the weekend after Lexie’s school let out for the holiday break – but it was long enough to encourage us to want to see even more of Scandinavia, which we will do in a couple weeks when we head to Sweden! But first, Copenhagen.

Twinkle lights decorating Nyhavn canal for Christmas in Copenhagen

Glittering Christmas lights decorating Copenhagen in December

Pedestrians bundled up to keep warm during winter in Copenhagen

Bicycles lined up side by side beneath Christmas lights in Copenhagen

Christmas markets and twinkle lights filling Copenhagen at Christmas

Twinkle lights decorating Nyhavn canal for Christmas in Copenhagen

My goodness, what a beautiful city Copenhagen is, especially during the holidays. Not even counting Tivoli Gardens (which is in a league of its own, and one of the coolest places you’ll ever visit at Christmas-time), the entire city is so full of holiday spirit that even the frigid December temperatures in Copenhagen can’t bring down the festive enthusiasm.

Read More: An Epic Christmas Holiday at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen

From the minute we exited the metro station, I knew we were going to like Copenhagen. Not every first impression I’ve had of a new place is correct, but as a general rule, I can usually determine whether I’m going to like a city within the first hour or so of being in it.

My first impressions of Copenhagen as we walked from the Kongens Nytorv station to our hotel went something like this –

It’s so freaking cold, but at least the skies are a beautiful, crisp winter blue! (That would be the last time we saw blue skies in Copenhagen, but at least we got started on the right foot!)

Everybody is smiling at me! (This could have been partly due to the giant grin plastered on my own face. Smiling is contagious. Unless you’re from London.)

Copenhagen is so clean. I haven’t seen a city this pristine since Singapore where they kick you out of the country if you’re found with a piece of chewing gum in your mouth. (Slight exaggeration in reference to Singapore, of course, but still – very, very clean streets and canals in Copenhagen.)

Scandinavian women are just as pretty as I thought they’d be. Must remember to wear make-up tomorrow so as not to feel like ugly, old crone by comparison.

We passed by the famous Nyhavn canal on our way to the hotel and I was struck, for just a moment, by how absolutely beautiful it is – the smooth waters of the canal, boats of all ages and sizes docked on each side, and then, of course, the multi-colored row houses that flank the canal and complete the scene. I had to stop where I was on the sidewalk and just stare at it.

It’s a scene I’ve seen photographed hundreds of times, but nothing beats actually seeing it in person. I wish I had taken a photo right then – the pale blue skies would have made the perfect backdrop – but I shrugged it off for later. Big mistake.

The sun sets at like noon in December in Copenhagen (kidding, more like 3pm), and since we were passing by at 2pm, it was dark before we made our way back after checking into the hotel. To top it all off, the sun decided to wear her cloud-colored burqa for the entire remainder of our trip, so I never got that shot I wanted. But hey, at least my nighttime shots didn’t turn out half-bad.

After we got checked into our hotel, we had about 2-3 hours to kill before dinnertime, but no real plans for how to keep busy in the meantime, so we just walked around the city looking at the twinkling lights draped over the trees and buildings, and lingered by every outdoor heater we crossed paths with.

Read More: The Ultimate Self-Guided Walking Tour of Copenhagen

We eventually ended up back at Nyhavn where we were taking some long exposure shots of the canal, using a closed canal tour company dock as a tripod, when a man walked up to us and said something in Danish. As we awkwardly fumbled through our usual apologies that we don’t speak the language, he effortlessly switched to English and asked us if we knew what was coming.

We, of course, didn’t, so he proceeded to explain that today was Saint Lucia Day and if we waited another half hour or so, we’d get to see a pretty special celebration in the canal. Excited because we seemed to be, for once, in the right place at the right time, we decided to stay right where we were on the dock and wait. And man, were we glad we did.

Kayaks filling Nyhavn canal for a Saint Lucia Day celebration in Copenhagen

Kayaks filling Nyhavn canal for a Saint Lucia Day celebration in Copenhagen

Kayaks filling Nyhavn canal for a Saint Lucia Day celebration in Copenhagen

We had front row seats when, shortly after 5pm, a group of people in holiday costumes came running down the street beside the canal. Then, not five minutes later, the first of 200 kayaks completely decked out in Christmas lights and decorations began making their way into the canal.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite so festive in my entire life. The atmosphere was, gosh, I struggle to find the right words. Joyful? Electric? I think Danish folks describe it better with a word from their vocabulary – hygge.

There is no direct translation in English, but it seems to me to be a combination of cheerfulness and the feeling of warmth that comes from contentment and being together with others. Even though we were just bystanders (much like the ghosts from A Christmas Carol – observers, but not participants), the feeling was contagious and I began to see why Denmark is always ranked so highly on lists of the happiest countries in the world.

Once all of the kayaks were situated in the canal, everyone began to sing in unison, including the crowds that had gathered along the banks of the canal without my noticing. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had while traveling, and the fact that it was completely unplanned on our part made it just that much more incredible.

We have a video of the whole experience, but since my knowledge of post-processing videos stops at moving them from my phone to the computer, it’ll likely never be shared on the blog. But in the background of the video, you can hear me saying ‘This is so freaking awesome!’ at least a half a dozen times. We really felt like, of all the places we could have been in the world at that moment and on that day, we were exactly where we were supposed to be.

Kayaks leaving Nyhavn canal after a Saint Lucia Day celebration in Copenhagen

And then, just like that, it was over. The kayaks paddled their way out of the canal and we were left, still sitting on the dock, wondering how in the world the rest of our trip could possibly compare with what had just transpired.

It didn’t matter that it was below freezing and our clothes were now soaked nearly all the way through from the dampness of the dock – nothing could get us down.

We eventually left, still feeling the after-effects of the excitement, and got cozy in a nearby cafe where we ate sandwiches bigger than our heads and for the next two hours continued to talk about how serendipitous our timing had been.

It is said that if one celebrates Saint Lucia Day well, they will carry with them enough light to get through the dark days of winter. Given our experience, I’m pretty sure the light in our hearts could carry us through three!

Read More: Copenhagen on a Budget: 10 Money-Saving Travel Tips

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Christmas in Copenhagen is a magical time, especially on Saint Lucia Day when hundreds of kayaks fill Nyhavn canal for a festive celebration you won't want to miss! Christmas in Copenhagen is a magical time, especially on Saint Lucia Day when hundreds of kayaks fill Nyhavn canal for a festive celebration you won't want to miss!

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35 Comments

  • Reply
    Milli-Jane
    January 19, 2016 at 5:48 PM

    Thank you so much for this post! Without it there is no way I would have found out about this and happened to be going on this exact date! I wrote my own blog post about our trip & linked you for credit! :)

  • Reply
    Lola Wanders
    December 29, 2015 at 11:19 PM

    So glad you blogged about this because my niece and I went and it was awesome! FYI it started a little after 4 PM Copenhagen time this year. We were loitering early luckily and ended up with prime spots on the same pier you were. Such a fun tradition. Next time we’re getting in a kayak!

    • Reply
      Sarah Shumate
      December 31, 2015 at 10:20 AM

      I’m so glad you were able to see it, too! And from such a great spot! :) Very happy you didn’t miss it, too, since the timing was a little different this year. Whew!

  • Reply
    Amanda Hewitt
    December 14, 2015 at 6:07 PM

    Hi, Sarah! I just discovered your blog while researching Christmas in Copenhagen. Your pictures are beautiful. My family and I will be traveling through Europe for 9 months beginning in April. I will definitely check out your posts on the places we’ll be visiting. Also, I’m writing an article for denmark.net and would like to link to this post. Could you email me back to be sure it’s ok? Thanks!

  • Reply
    Alyson Tart
    February 18, 2015 at 10:08 AM

    I just love this! What a unique Christmas celebration to stumble upon!

  • Reply
    Jessi @2feet1world
    February 15, 2015 at 5:48 PM

    Wow, my mouth dropped open with the first of those packed canal shots – how stunning! What a fabulous event to witness in that beautiful spot :)

  • Reply
    rorybore
    February 6, 2015 at 2:57 AM

    these night time shots are just gorgeous!! especially that first one of the canal.
    You did this so well — I was right there with you and didn’t even have to picture the kayaks all lit up: but when you mentioned the singing? I literally started to tear up!!! I can just imagine that moment. awesome indeed.

  • Reply
    Jess {JessOnThames}
    February 5, 2015 at 11:06 PM

    Oh dear lord, I have fallen down a blogging dark hole and this has just pulled me out of it – what an amazing time to be there! I thought about visiting Copenhagen in summer but this makes me reconsider. Your blog is looking absolutely gorgeous! Looking forward to catching up on my way-behind reading!! xx

    • Reply
      Sarah Shumate
      February 6, 2015 at 11:08 AM

      I really don’t think you can go wrong with a visit to Copenhagen. It looks pretty all year long. I wouldn’t mind going in the summer sometime, too, when the weather is better! That was my only complaint about visiting in December. If you can handle the cold, though, going at Christmas is pretty great!

      • Reply
        Jess {JessOnThames}
        February 6, 2015 at 2:02 PM

        One of the great things about being a Minnesotan. If there’s one thing we do well, its cold ;)

  • Reply
    Robert
    February 4, 2015 at 5:09 PM

    Wow! Beautiful pictures, Sarah! And Copenhagen looks so much fun at Christmas. I’ve been once before, during the summer, and it was great, I really loved the city. But it looks even better during the holidays :) x

  • Reply
    Emmymom
    February 4, 2015 at 8:40 PM

    I got chills reading that, that sounds like it would have so spectacular! LOVE that long exposure shot!!

  • Reply
    topchelseagirl
    February 3, 2015 at 8:14 PM

    Wow how serendipitous. I used to work with a Danish girl, who sadly went home, and she was so sweet.

  • Reply
    Miwa
    February 3, 2015 at 6:35 PM

    What a gorgeous city!! And you captured it so beautifully, too! (How do you take such great night time shots?? Seriously. I’d love to hear some tips!) I’ve never seen that many kayaks in my life. If I was there, I’m pretty sure I would be saying, “This is freaking awesome!” too ;)

    • Reply
      Sarah Shumate
      February 6, 2015 at 11:02 AM

      Luck?! :) Ha! No, I’m not really sure. The first photo in this post was a long exposure, somewhere around 20-30 seconds. I didn’t have a tripod, so I just used the boat dock to steady the camera.

      The ones with the kayaks were difficult, though, because I had to hand-hold and use a shutter speed around 1/25. (I’ve gotten pretty good at holding my breath and staying still!) My camera doesn’t have a flash, so the only light I had to work with was the light coming from the Christmas lights on their kayaks. I bumped up the ISO as much as I could without risking a ton of noise (you can still see some, though), opened the aperture as wide as it would go, and hoped for the best! It’s all just trial and error for me right now, but I was pretty pleased at my amateur efforts on these!

  • Reply
    Irene @ Away from Tenerife
    February 3, 2015 at 4:10 PM

    Hehe I loved reading your thoughts when arriving to Copenhagen but with or without make-up I don’t think you look like an old crone at old! You always look so gorgeous!

    Your night photos are great, I especially like the second one, with all those christmas lights shaped as the curtains on a stage and the nutcracker, the tin soldier or whatever displayed on the balconies. Beautiful! And the St Lucia celebration sounds like something incredible!

  • Reply
    Jo
    February 3, 2015 at 10:04 AM

    That is so cool! We have met quite a few people from the Scandinavian countries here in Belgium and they are all super friendly and helpful.

  • Reply
    Dannielle @ Chicadeedee
    February 3, 2015 at 11:56 AM

    I’m completely loving your night pictures in this post! Also really want to go to Copenhagen now. Anywhere with canals and I’m in love.

  • Reply
    Samantha Angell
    February 3, 2015 at 10:10 AM

    Wow, you got so many terrific and amazing pictures! While I’ve spent time in Copenhagen, I’ve never really explored the city- or seen it look as gorgeous as you made it! Where are you traveling to in Sweden? If you need any tips for Stockholm I can definitely help ya out!

    • Reply
      Sarah Shumate
      February 6, 2015 at 10:54 AM

      I wish we were going to be able to spend more time in Stockholm! As it is, we only have a 3-4 hour layover there on our way to and from Kiruna. From Kiruna, we’re headed to Abisko – it’s going to make for one very long travel day!

  • Reply
    Isabel @ TheSunnySideofThis
    February 3, 2015 at 9:25 AM

    Such a beautiful experience to take part of! I have never heard of it before but it sounds like a once in a lifetime opportunity to grab! Really great activity to be included in any Bucket List. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    Stacie Stamper
    February 2, 2015 at 7:40 PM

    That is the coolest story! How awesome that you just “happened” to be there. But I can’t get over how still the water was in that first shot and how dark it was at 5:00!

  • Reply
    Emma @ AdventuresofaLondonKiwi
    February 2, 2015 at 10:55 PM

    What breathtaking moment’s you’ve captured – it’s like we were there with you!

  • Reply
    Erin
    February 2, 2015 at 10:23 PM

    Those are great photos and though you are lost for words, I think your images do the scene justice. This sounds like and incredible experience!

  • Reply
    T.J.
    February 2, 2015 at 8:42 PM

    oooh how gorgeous and serendipitous! I have my own teenyl celebration of St Lucia here in december, but holy moly that crazy fest squashes it like a bug! Those kayaks! We do have 2 kayaks and a small lake here though. hmmm… ;)

  • Reply
    Katrin
    February 2, 2015 at 2:45 PM

    Oh wow, I am so glad that guy told you about it. What an experience. Even the pictures give me goosebumps! You really took some fantastic shots! Thank you so much for sharing this! I never heard about this before!

  • Reply
    Chiara Pannozzo
    February 2, 2015 at 1:55 PM

    This is amazing! We have booked a trip to go to Copenhagen later this year and now this has got me even more excited. Your pictures are just gorgeous :-)

  • Reply
    The Journey of Christine
    February 2, 2015 at 1:38 PM

    Wow what stunning night photography! All those kayaks! What a once (maybe not) in a lifetime moment!

  • Reply
    Amanda @ Rhyme & Ribbons
    February 2, 2015 at 12:54 PM

    Oh wow! Lovely! Copenhagen is one of those cities that I’ve always wanted to travel to since I was little. But I think that mostly has to do with this Hans Cristian Anderson film I used to love xx

    • Reply
      Sarah Shumate
      February 6, 2015 at 10:46 AM

      Which film? Hans Christian Andersen is definitely one of Copenhagen’s most famous former residents. He’s left his mark all over the town!

      • Reply
        Amanda @ Rhyme & Ribbons
        February 6, 2015 at 1:55 PM

        It’s just a cheesy movie musical from the 50s called “Hans Christian Anderson”. I used to like the ballet in it! xx

  • Reply
    Jamie | The Healthy Passport
    February 2, 2015 at 10:13 AM

    So I had chills seeing all of the kayaks in the frame! What and amazing travel moment! And your camera shots in the dark are superb! Scandinavia might have to be our first trip back to Europe once we move :) it looks amazing!

    • Reply
      Sarah Shumate
      February 6, 2015 at 10:38 AM

      I love that you’re already planning a return trip to Europe and you haven’t even moved yet! :)

      • Reply
        Jamie | The Healthy Passport
        February 6, 2015 at 12:38 PM

        Oh yes…I am planning haha!! Not sure if an American job will allow me the time off that I am wanting but nevertheless one transatlantic trip will have to be on the agenda every year!!

  • Reply
    Tina @ Girl-Meets-Globe
    February 2, 2015 at 9:11 AM

    That is awesome!! We had some neighbors here in Horsham from Denmark and they were the sweetest, prettiest, most stylish people and so generous!! They moved back to Denmark in December. Now seeing this makes me want to go even more!! Such spectacular photos!!!

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