1. It was invented by a Roskilde bishop
The idea for Great Prayer Day came from Hans Bagger, a bishop in Roskilde from 1675 to 1693. Within his first two years of service, he implemented three additional days for praying and fasting into a calendar already full of holy days. When all of that time spent fasting and praying began to interfere with actually getting things done, some of the lesser days were rolled into one of Bagger’s three additions and Great Prayer Day was born. It was instituted into law by King Christian V in 1686.
2. It used to be more than ‘Great’
The original name for Great Prayer Day, or Store Bededag in Danish, was “extraordinary general prayer day”.
3. The date moves
Great Prayer Day is always held on the fourth Friday after Easter, meaning that its calendar date varies from year to year. The earliest possible date is April 17th and the latest is May 21st. This year’s falls on April 22nd, an improvement over last year when it fell on May 1st, thus coinciding with International Labour Day and resulting in one fewer day off for some workers.
In 2017, Great Prayer Day will be on May 12th.
4. It started the night before to ensure people won’t be drunk
In the early years, Great Prayer Day was serious business. When church bells began ringing at 6pm on the evening before, it was a signal to shut down all commerce, gaming and entertainment. This was to ensure that when people showed up for church services the next day – and they would, since it was obligatory – they would arrive both on time and sober.
5. You eat warm buns
With that ban on commerce after 6pm, enterprising bakers decided to make extra wheat buns in advance of the day in order to tide people over. People would buy the buns on Thursday and then warm them up on Friday. As the years went on, the tradition of eating warm buns on Great Prayer Day remained although it has shifted to eating them on the evening before.
Make some yourself with this recipe.
6. A good time to take a walk or get confirmed
Beyond the buns, there are few traditions associated with Great Prayer Day. In the old days, people in Copenhagen would go for a walk to hear the church bells. Today some people will still use the holiday as an occasion to take a stroll along Langelinie, the ramparts around Christianshavn or Kastellet.
To this day, Great Prayer Day also remains one of the biggest days of the year for church confirmations.
7. The holiday could be in jeopardy
In 2012 there was serious discussion about dropping Great Prayer Day as a way to boost production. The idea was introduced at a time when former PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s government was proposing to extend the average Dane’s workday by 12 minutes to increase productivity and finance the nation’s generous welfare system.
Labour unions were not wild about the government’s 12-minute plan and so attention was turned to eliminating a public holiday. Great Prayer Day was singled out as the likely victim, and it was suggested that it should be moved to Sunday rather than being a day off work.
The idea was eventually dropped during the course of the government’s three-way negotiations with labour unions and employers but talk about increasing Denmark’s productivity and competitiveness never really goes away. So take advantage of the day off while you can!
Note to readers: This article was originally published in 2015.