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Danish traditions For Members

Why does Denmark have Great Prayer Day holiday and why is it being abolished?

Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett - [email protected]
Why does Denmark have Great Prayer Day holiday and why is it being abolished?
STORE BEDEDAGS AFTENS BRØD: VARME HVEDER.

Friday May 5th 2023 is the last hurrah for Denmark's Great Prayer Day as a day off work. In this archive article, we look at why the Danish calendar includes this extra holiday on a day when most other countries are going about their normal business.

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Raise a hot wheat bun and say a fond farvel to the long weekend provided to Danish workers by the Great Prayer Day (Store Bededag). After centuries of celebration as a public holiday, Parliament voted earlier this year to strike the day off from the calendar. Purportedly, an extra day of labor will raise enough tax revenue to help make up for the defence budget shortfall — though economists say there's little to no evidence to suggest that will work. The move doesn't exactly enjoy public support — opinion polls suggest 70 percent of Danes oppose ending the holiday — and even the military, the supposed beneficiary, has distanced itself from the decision. 

The holiday existed since the 1600s and falls on the fourth Sunday after Easter, giving everyone who works in Denmark an extra long spring weekend. That is, until 2024. 

Denmark originally introduced Great Prayer Day – officially an “extraordinary normal prayer day” in the late 17th century during the time of King Christian V, who decreed it.

The holiday is in fact one of three religious holidays introduced at the time at the behest of the Bishop of Roskilde, Hans Bagger (1675-1693).

Although the three prayer days were implemented by the bishop in his first two years in the job, only the middle of the three days on the calendar was coded into the law by the king. It falls on the fourth Friday after Easter Sunday.

The idea of decreeing a single day as a public praying day was to reduce the number of these religious days, limiting everyone’s time off. It’s unclear whether the King himself continued to take the other two days off work.

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Nevertheless, the decree condensed religious holidays that had existed since before the Reformation – for example during the spring and at harvest, as well as several extra ones around Christmas time. There were 22 holy days in the calendar at one point, so it’s probably fair enough they were cut back a bit.

The day was a more serious affair in its early years. Inns and cellars were required to stop serving their beverages when church bells rang the preceding evening at 6pm. Everyone had to attend church – sober – the following day. Fasting until the end of religious services was also demanded.

Those pious duties have given sway over the years. Now, Great Prayer Day is probably best known for eating hvede – cardamom-infused wheat buns with a generous spreading of butter and perhaps jam. There’s a tradition behind this too – bakers were not allowed to work on Store Bededag, so they made the wheat buns on Thursday to be reheated the following day. Think of it like a microwave meal for the Age of Enlightenment.

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Work, games, gambling and other “worldly vanity” were also not allowed during the religious penitence. Only the first of these is limited today, with shops and most supermarkets closed, as well as non-essential public sector services.

Sources: National Museum of Denmark, Folkekirken

READ ALSO: Witches and rain: Denmark’s Sankt Hans Aften explained

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