There appears to be nothing rotten in the state of Denmark these days. For the second straight year, it has been named the happiest country, according to a survey of 156 nations called the World Happiness Report.
Based on Gallup data collected from 2010-2012, the survey looks at measures like life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices, and perceptions of corruption and generosity. Denmark nudged out Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden.
During the happiest season of all — as the Christmas song goes — it seemed fitting to explore Copenhagen, a fairy-tale city that Hans Christian Andersen called home.
In colder months, as the sky spits sleet on dark nights, Copenhagen transforms into a wonderland. Stroget, the city center’s tangle of pedestrian streets, is festive with decorations.
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In the fabled Christmas markets, visitors may find themselves succumbing to holiday cheer with a mug of warm glögg (mulled, spiced wine), which has been known to inspire hygge, Danish for coziness and good spirits.
For the Danish, the Christmas spirit is palpable even in July. Since 1957, Denmark has hosted the World Santa Claus Congress during that month, when portly, reference-checked professional Santas compete at the World Santa Claus Championships on an obstacle course in the Nisseskoven (Pixie Forest).
Teams of Santas throw sacks of presents, climb ice mountains, slide down chimneys and even do Zumba dance workouts.
Sparkling at Tivoli
Northern Europe’s biggest Christmas market takes place at Tivoli Gardens, near the city’s Central Station. Tivoli covers 20 acres and hosts roughly 900,000 visitors (mostly Danes) each season (Vesterbrogade 3; 45-3315-1001; tivoli.dk/en; ages 8 and over, 95 Danish kroner, or $18 at 5.35 kroner to the dollar; under 8 with an adult, free).
Tivoli’s dazzling decorations light up the night with replicas of a Chinese pagoda, St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, even an Arabian palace. Santa poses for photos near live reindeer in the Nordic Village. Daredevils squeal on 29 carnival rides, including a wooden roller coaster that will be a century old next year.
Dozens of vendors sell woolens, furs, nutcracker dolls and enough lollipops to make a dentist wince.
“It’s a good place to explore the ways of the Danes,” said Ellen Dahl, a spokeswoman for Tivoli Gardens. “It’s sort of the essence of Christmas.”
Hojbro Plads, one of Copenhagen’s prettiest squares on Stroget, hosts a Danish- and German-influenced Christmas market (Hojbro Plads; 45-2125-9340; julemarked.nu). Christmas trees sparkle with hundreds of ornaments. A roly-poly snowman guards the entrance. It’s tempting to sacrifice too many kroner here — maybe buy a woolen hat with silvery snowflakes.
While sipping hot cocoa and munching a kringle, the pretzel-shaped pastry whose image hangs above Danish bakeries, you may feel like a child again.
At Nyhavn Christmas Market (nyhavn.com), near the Royal Danish Playhouse, vendors set up stalls alongside the quaint Nyhavn canal. A former maritime quarter, Nyhavn features spiffed-up historic ships against a backdrop of powder-blue, orange and yellow 18th-century houses. Try aebleskiver (Danish pancakes with sugar and jam), and revive childhood memories of yuletide sugar highs.
What inspires such merriment? Santa (aka Soren Moller Pedersen, 52, a children’s theater actor and drummer) provided a clue. Soon to start his fourth season at Tivoli, Santa responded candidly (via email; it’s high season) about his career path.
“It was a natural choice,” he said, “to try to fill, in real life, one of the most sweet and loved characters in the world, without becoming a ‘Ho Ho’ superficial cliché.”
Why so happy?
The happiness survey offers no pat explanation for why Denmark is No. 1. Another report, “Danish Happiness, Explained,” sets out to address that question. Economic prosperity helps, but it’s not the whole story.
“First, we share the world record in trust with Norway and Sweden,” said Christian Bjornskov, an economics professor at Aarhus University who consulted on the Danish report by the new Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen.
“The second factor is a strong belief in personal freedom — that you can always change things in your own life.”