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  • We may be the “happiest” people in the world, but winters are almost unbearable in Copenhagen. The darkness, the enervating headwinds and perpetual damp, it is like being adrift at sea, a sensory silence for months on end, where we cling to the promise of happiness and contentment like beleaguered seafarers who are desperate to find the nearest lighthouse.

    It shouldn’t be surprising that Copenhageners are obsessed with light - street lights, house lights, candle lights (which, in Danish, translates directly to "living lights"), so when December arrives, the city is quite literally ablaze in anticipation for Christmas.

    It is that time of year when Danes perfect the art of hygge – our ritualized gestures of generosity, which act as antidotes to our otherwise asocial tendencies.

    One year I was alone on Christmas - mostly by choice - but on the Christmas Eve, feeling terribly melancholy, I had a sudden change of heart. I had heard about an event - “Christmas for the Christmas-less,” (Juleløses Jul in Danish) which takes place every year in Christiania - and so I went there on my own.

    There’s no invite, no RSVP. You just show up.

    For those who don't know Christiania, it is a free society in the middle of Copenhagen, situated adjacent to what has become one of the city’s most exclusive quarters. It was started in the 1970s by squatters who took over a de-commissioned military base. They did their best to establish a community whose values were based on empathy, fellowship, and cooperation.

    That said, Christiania never exactly thrived. It’s had many heydays but there were also numerous times when the community suffered from disorganization and poor management and, like the rest of Danish society, it’s been diminished by economic and social imbalance.

    Nonetheless, most people who live in Copenhagen to this day agree that Christiania has an important role to play in Danish society. It’s one of the few places that still stand for fairness and the expression of individual creativity.

    You see it embodied in its clusters of affordable yet curiously handcrafted houses: the colorfully converted cabooses, stables, barracks and factory spaces that line the cobblestone streets or are nestled besides the centuries-old ramparts.

    Though many of the original houses are still there today, that founding spirit struggles to remain, as the community endures wave after wave of attempts to turn over the land for commercial development.

    But Christmas is when Christiania is at its best. The residents throw a party where anyone can attend, with the idea that no one should have to spend Christmas alone. It’s hygge combined with a belief in fairness, that creates a truly unique community event.

    And so I found myself there on Christmas Eve.

    I was a bit anxious, as I arrived by bike at the port of Christiania. I followed a few revelers along a footpath to the Grey Hall, and as I entered its vast space, I was greeted by a very lively party. Instead of the harsh light of a typical city soup kitchen that perhaps I had feared, there was candlelight from dozens of extravagantly restored glass chandeliers, and next to them, illuminated Christmas trees suspended from the high ceilings. There was music and the aroma of Christmas dinner, and, remarkably, there were at least fifteen hundred guests.

    In the middle of the space was the nucleus of the party: a large, open kitchen operated by a cheerful crew of twenty, many of whom were volunteer chefs from some of the city’s best restaurants. Signs were posted above different stations that offered vegetarian and vegan meals, while others spoke of pork roast with red cabbage and beef tenderloin.

    In a rectangular orbit around the kitchen were row upon row of tables, each decorated with linens, flowers, and live candles.

    On each side of the hall were festively decorated shacks, responsible for the sale of wine and beer. In fact, these bars were the only places where one could actually buy something, because everything else, the food, the entertainment, the experience, was offered for free. All of it was free.

    Here were the denizens of Christiania. The artists, artisans, writers, workers, bikers, drag queens, students, yogis and Trotskyites, and even hipsters and yuppies. There were ministers, clergy, and on some years, there are even unofficial visits from members of the royal family. The guests were young and old, they were families, they were smiling.

    Kids ran around, and dogs too, and there was an old timer in a leather jacket, stashed away in a corner, a bottle of beer dangling precariously from one hand draped over a folded knee.

    I spotted several members of a little tribe of jovial vagabonds who are colloquially known as “the knights of the country highways,” landevejsrytterne, recognizable by their retrofitted military uniforms that have been adorned with patches, raccoon tails and feathers. With their red, gin-blossomed noses, they resemble a cross between Hells Angels and Baron von Munchausen.

    And yes, there were also the homeless, the strung-out, the drunks, the bag ladies, and petty criminals. They were equally welcome amongst the hosts.

    And then there were many people there like me – Christmas orphans – smitten by this beautifully thoughtful initiative.

    Soon, I bumped into familiar faces. We shared coffee and marzipan cakes, rice pudding, dark chocolates and tangerines, while I watched a motley crew of elderly hippies plug in their guitars and amplifiers on stage. The lead singer, a bespectacled mustachioed Inuit man with long black hair, wearing a Hawaii shirt and pants pulled up very high – he resembled a scrawny, professorial Cheech Marin – gesticulated to the ceiling, and enthusiastically announced to the crowd that they were going to perform 'Puppa Hize.' I said to the person next to me, "did he just say Puppa Hize?"

    With a clap of thunder and an electric twang, the first chords were struck, and I realized that it was Purple Haze that they were launching into. They played for hours, determinedly moving through a repertoire of Woodstock rock.

    It wasn’t always good, the music, and no matter how much pilsner was consumed, it did not get better, but the entertainment was not the main attraction here.

    Bringing so many different people together in a hall on Christmas Eve is quite a task. It takes months, through a support network of hundreds of volunteers who, on the evening itself, work all night long to make it happen. They have been doing this in Christiania every Christmas eve for over thirty years now. It wasn't seamless and it wasn't perfect. In fact, it was a touch awkward at times, but that’s Christiania for you. Rough around the edges but with good intentions at its heart, combining deeply-ingrained Danish traditions with a yearning for an alternative model of community.

    I was impressed by the generosity of the hosts. So much was offered, without want of anything in return. There were no signs promoting the sponsors, nor announcements proclaiming their benevolence. Nothing was demanded. This was unconditional love.

    I was deeply moved by it all. Why should a complete stranger like me be given all of this? Yet, every one was there to give, in some sort of way. This generosity stirred me to connect with strangers that evening, and I saw that impulse in others. It wasn’t that hard to act on.

    Christmas celebrates the turning, the transition; the gathering of strength to endure the darkness and isolation of winter’s second act. We are each presented with a choice, an opportunity, to face this alone or do it in the fellowship of others.

    And so I realised that Christmas is charity and unconditional love. That’s what it is. We give because we can.

    I learned that night that when we help others, we help everyone around us. When we treat everyone as our equals, with the same dignity and compassion that we would treat our own loved ones, then we lift ourselves as a society. I try to practice that every day

    And so, some time after midnight, it was time to go home. I said my good-byes to the Juleløses Jul, I was now one of them, and I stepped outside into the cold night to take in the fresh air.

    But the winter wasn’t so imposing now. I was warm, and I rode that feeling of love all the way home into the cold, December night.
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