Once upon a time – no, even longer ago than that, because he appears in European literature at least as early as 1060 – a Danish boy named Holger appeared at the court of Charlemagne and offered his services as a knight. Holger Danske – Holger the Dane – they called him. He was a good warrior, tall and strong and brave, and legend reports that he never lost a battle in his entire life.
Did I say that Holger Danske was tall? That was an understatement. One tale reports,
Holger Danske came one time to a town named Bagsvoer, in the isle of Zealand, where, being in want of a new suit of clothes, he sent for twelve tailors to make them. He was so tall that they were obliged to set ladders to his back and shoulders to take his measure. They measured and measured away, but unluckily a man, who was on the top of one of the ladders, happened, as he was cutting a mark in the measure, to give Holger’s ear a clip with the scissors. Holger, forgetting what was going on, thinking that he was being bitten by a flea, put up his hand and crushed the unlucky tailor to death between his fingers.[Source]
On another occasion, a witch gave him a pair of glasses – Holger Danskes Briller, or Holger Danske’s Spectacles – which were so powerful that he could see through the very ground.
Holger Danske served Charlemagne well, but this boy from the north grew ever more homesick, and finally he left the French king in the south of France and walked all the way through Europe until he reached Kronborg castle at Helsingen (or Elsinor), just north of Copenhagen. Wearied from his long walk, Holger Danske sought the quiet of the stone stables, sat down at a table there, and fell asleep. While he slept, his beard grew, longer and longer until it grew into the very fibers of the table, and then into the stone of the castle itself. He sleeps there still, where he – or at least his statue – can be seen by visitors. There he dreams of Denmark. Legend says that whenever Denmark is threatened by a foe, Holger Danske wakes again and marches at the head of her armies, then returns to Kronberg Castle to dream until his country needs its hero again.
Before he fell asleep in the stables, Holger Danske must have stretched out on the Common in front of Kronborg Castle, because he left the imprint of his glasses in the grass there. For generations two tiny lakes, perfectly round and very near each other – one somewhat larger than the other, though – were located on the Commons. These were pools that fed the imaginations of older children, who in turn fed terrifying tales to younger ones:
Boys who had paddled in it had been bitten on the leg by leeches that sucked blood until they turned into round black sausages! And in the middle of the water there was a bottomless hole that led down to hell! The legends about this lake were indeed enough to send cold shivers up and down the spine of a little urchin of three or four, and it was some time before I got up enough courage to put this part of the world behind me. [Source]
The pools of Holger Danskes Briller were very familiar to 19th century Latter-day Saints. In fact, if your ancestors were members of the Copenhagen Branch conference anytime in the second half of the 19th century, they were almost certainly may have been baptized in the larger of the two pools, which served as the a Copenhagen [conference] baptismal font through the decades. [See comments 1, 9, 11 and 24.]
Mormon baptisms at Copenhagen were usually held on Sunday nights after the regular meetings, and usually after dark to avoid unwanted attention from strangers. The branch choir generally accompanied candidates to their baptisms, walking quietly on to the way there, but “on the return to the city … the beautiful songs of Zion would resound over the wide field and through the streets in the outskirts of the city.” Baptisms were held year round. When ice formed on the pond – sometimes a foot thick – the elders would borrow an axe from a Latter-day Saint family who lived near the Briller and chop a sufficient opening in the afternoon; if the pond froze over again during the evening meeting, the elders would chop a hole the second time.
One Sunday while Hans J. Christiansen was president of the Copenhagen conference (sorry, I haven’t researched the year), the baptism of a female convert was scheduled. Branch members walked quietly to the Briller – but apparently not quietly enough. Some local men, determined to disrupt services, summoned a police officer and trailed the branch members to the site. Even though it was a dark night, the sisters in the branch formed a circle around the convert to shield her modesty as she dressed for her baptism. the brethren in the branch surrounded President Christiansen as he changed into the clothes he would wear into the water. Just as they were about to perform the baptism, the burning glow from cigars announced the presence of the intruders.
”What’s going on here?” demanded the policeman.
“We have come here to perform a baptism,” replied Elder Christiansen.
“A baptism? Out here! Why, such are performed in the churches, not out in the open air, and in the dark!”
Elder Christiansen briefly introduced the party as Latter-day Saints, and explained Mormon beliefs and the custom of baptism by immersion, for the same reason that John baptized in the Jordan “because there was much water there.”
And after a little further conversation President Christiansen asked the officer if he had any objection to the ordinance being performed then and there.
“Not at all; go ahead with your baptism,” he replied.
Before the elder could take a step, the cigar-smoking observers began to whoop and holler and offer insults. But instead of joining them as the hooligans expected, the police office instantly rebuked them, “demanding [they] be quiet and respectful ‘while these people are performing their baptism.’” He made them behave themselves until the Saints had completed the baptism, dressed in dry clothes, and went on their way toward home, singing hymns into the night.
The pools of Holger Danskes Briller dried up sometime in the early 20th century. The smaller one has vanished; the larger one, the baptismal pool, remains in the form of a small slough. They served their purpose; baptisms have been performed for over a century now in fonts within LDS chapels in and around Copenhagen, and now in the temple there. Holger Danske slumbers on, to awaken when his people need him again.
[Quotations not otherwise attributed are from Hugo D.E. Peterson, “Holger Danske’s ‘Briller,’ or ‘Specs,’ Improvement Era 1923, 151-52.]