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.
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.