Store Bededag: Why does Denmark have annual ‘Prayer Day’ holiday?

Many people who work in Denmark have the day off today for the public holiday Great Prayer Day (Store Bededag). We look at why the Danish calendar includes this extra holiday on a day when most other countries are going about their normal business.

Store Bededag: Why does Denmark have annual 'Prayer Day' holiday?
Warm wheat buns, a Great Prayer Day tradition.Archive photo: Eva Seider/Ritzau Scanpix

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).

Bishop Hans Bagger introduced three prayer days to Denmark in the late 1600s. Image: Kunstbibliothek der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

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.

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.

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.

One aspect of the Great Prayer Day of Hans Bagger’s time that might feel familiar in 2021 is a ban on travelling. Limitations in the late 17th century were conceivably a limit on going from village to village, rather than restrictions on leaving the country.

Sources: National Museum of Denmark, Folkekirken

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

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Why ceremonial pancakes are one of Denmark’s highest honors

Victorious athletes and visiting dignitaries in Denmark get their just deserts/desserts at Copenhagen City Hall — the "Rådhuspandekager" or city hall pancakes. But where does the tradition come from?

Why ceremonial pancakes are one of Denmark's highest honors

Sure, the fame and fortune are probably great, but Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard has a real honor headed his way on Wednesday. After his ceremonial ride through Copenhagen, the mayor will treat him to the plate of pancakes that has become a staple for celebrated individuals for 90 years. 

In 1928, when King Albert I of Belgium came calling in Denmark, a cook named Phillip Olsen at the historic Fredensborg Store Kro (that’s an inn) whipped up a new recipe he thought might appeal to a waffle-loving Belgian. The king was so taken by the dish that it’s been served to foreign officials, prize-winning artists, and victorious Danish athletes ever since.  

For an official reception, the town hall cafeteria churns out up to 1,000 pancakes, head chef Elisabeth Christensen told VICE in 2018. The team made 4,000 pancakes for Copenhagen’s Culture Night that year, she added. 

READ MORE: Denmark celebrates home-grown Tour de France winner Vingegaard

If you merit an invitation to town hall, don’t come looking for a flapjack — Rådhuspandekager look like a cross between a crepe and a cannoli. It’s a thin, crispy pancake rolled and filled with orange creme, topped with apricot jam and and toasted almonds. 

The town hall recipe remains secret, but after a Danish egg company popularised the pancakes in the 1960s they’ve become a household favorite.

If you don’t expect to win the Tour de France soon, here’s a recipe for how to prepare your own Rådhuspandekager. Or, gather a group and book a guided tour of City Hall, which includes a pancake and glass of sparkling wine (seems easier than all that biking).