- Published: Tuesday, 10 December 2013 05:00
- Written by Leah Swofford
Every year, on December 1, the California town of Solvang begins the celebration of Jul, the Danish Christmas. Also known as the “Danish Capital of America,” Solvang embraces the traditions of Denmark with holiday decorations and festivities throughout the month. The annual Julefest brings the small town filled with many second, third, even fourth generation Danes together to celebrate the holidays as their ancestors once did and share the joy with visitors who travel from near and far to join them.
I was definitely in the holiday spirit as my companion and I headed two hours north of Los Angeles to the tiny Danish town. Founded in 1911 by a group of Danes who wanted to establish a colony in warmer climes, Solvang is home to restaurants, bakeries, and merchants offering a taste of Denmark. Their welcome and warmth was much appreciated as temperatures dipped into the 50s during the day and the mid-30s at night, making it all the more inviting to hole up in Solvang Restaurant over a plate of pancake puff-like aebleskivers or imbibe in some of the locally produced wine at the Presidio Winery tasting room.
We were also thankful our hotel, Hadsten House Inn, was just a quick walk down Mission Drive (Solvang’s main street) and provided a cozy guestroom to return to each night. Warm wood furniture was complemented by black, white, and red accents, and an electric fireplace only added to the comforting atmosphere. I adored the wood armoire, which had an old-fashioned key inserted into a lock on each of its doors. It was easy to forget one was still in Southern California with all the lovely European décor.
To kick off Julefest, the town bundled up and flocked to the gazebo at Solvang Park on the first Friday in December, where a local band played holiday songs to get the crowd in a festive mood. After high school dance and choir groups performed and a local actor charmed the kids with a reading of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” attention turned toward the tree. A count down from 10 and the tree lit up in all its Julefest glory, twinkling red, green, blue, and gold.
The celebration continued on Saturday with the Solvang Julefest parade. Community spirit thrived at this event, which featured entries by local businesses, schools, churches, and Girl and Boy Scout troops. It was fun to see the whole town (and quite a few visitors) come together to cheer on friends and neighbors and spread their well wishes.
Many businesses lining the Solvang streets also took part in “100 Trees of Julefest,” decorating real Christmas trees for display outside their shop, bakery, or restaurant door. Once you notice these trees, it’s hard to stop; there seemed to be one around every corner, encompassing the town with holiday cheer.
We had the pleasure of meeting Aaron and Elsemarie Petersen, owners and operators of several businesses in Solvang. Aaron, a native of Solvang, and Elsemarie, a native of Denmark, first opened Greenhouse Café, a Nordic bistro, in 1995, serving Danish classics and American favorites. The couple’s popular CHOMP diner is a local favorite, with its all-American burgers, fries, and shakes.
The Petersens also co-own Ingeborg’s Danish Chocolates with Kim Jensen, another Solvang native, and his wife Carol Krivulka. The quartet, with Elsemarie and Carol at the helm, keep Solvang and loyal customers from around the world supplied with old-fashioned Danish chocolates and other sweets. The shop’s namesake, Ingeborg Larsen, brought original recipes to America from Denmark, many of which are now more than 70 years old. She began the town’s tradition of handmade chocolate creations with her sister Carla in 1961, and the current co-owners work hard to stay true to the chocolate history.
Solvang’s Julefest celebration also includes S’moreFest! and a nativity pageant on December 14 and a holiday wine walk December 14-15. The event culminates with a Christmas tree burn on January 10.