The wheat-rolls and the day of prayer

Every year on the fourth Friday after Easter Sunday Danes look forward to one of their long weekends. Known as ”Prayer-day-weekend” or just simply “Great Prayer Day” – Store Bededag.

As the name suggests, “Great Prayer Day” is a church holiday. It was once a day of mandatory church services, fasting and repentance. Today it is a welcome day off to many. To others it is a long awaited day of celebration, being one of the busiest days of the annual wave of confirmations with churches bursting with young girls in white dresses and boys in their best of Sunday bests.

And almost more importantly: It is the day of the very special square wheat-rolls, which are eaten with great fervour on the evening before Great Prayer Day – known as “Store Bededagsaften” or “Great Prayer Day-eve”.

To these wheat rolls we shall return. But first a little history on the origins of “Great Prayer Day”.

Church vs. societal efficiency
In 1686 – some 150 years after the protestant Reformation of Denmark – the king made an attempt to cut down on the many annual days of prayer, fasting and repentance. There were simply too many days of only prayer and no work. Instead came one annual day of prayer set about a month after Easter.

There is no significance to the placing of Great Prayer Day in the spring. In fact, it would have been even more welcome during Fall, when there are next to no holidays – and thereby no long weekends. But the King often travelled during the fall and wanted to be in Copenhagen for the prayer day. And so the Danes were given another springtime holiday.

Preparations for the “Great Prayer Day” began on the Thursday evening at 6 pm when the great bells of all the churches across the country were set to ring in the holiday. On this signal, all bars, market stalls, shops and other places of business were to close down and everyone to return home for an early night.

This was to ensure that everyone could wake up bright, early and sober for morning mass the next day.

And now for the wheat rolls
The call to close down shop was to be heeded by all trades. No work was to be done by anyone including the bakers, who were usually exempt from such holiday restrictions. The “Great Prayer Day” thus became the bakers’ only day off during the year.

To ensure that the good citizens of Denmark could still enjoy their daily wheat bread, the bakers came up with a special wheat roll sweetened with cardamom: The “hvedeknop” or “hvede” – literally “wheat bud” or “wheat”. Baked only once a year and sold on the day before the holiday to be heated and enjoyed once the church services were done with and the fast could be broken.

The evening before the actual day
Danes have a tendency to celebrate their holidays on the eve before rather than on the actual holiday: Christmas Eve, Midsummer’s Eve, Saint Martin’s Eve. Thus, they can enjoy the festivities on the eve before, while keeping the solemnity of the holy day.

It is perhaps not surprising then that although the Prayer-day wheat rolls were intended for the actual holiday, they soon became popular to eat on the evening before the Great Prayer Day.

The people of Copenhagen on their evening walk before the Great Prayer Day. Andreas Herman Hunæus/1862. Copyright: Public domain / Wikimedia commons

When everything had been closed down, the streets of the cities and towns must have seemed unusually quiet. In Copenhagen, the bourgeoisie took to going for an evening walk to enjoy the quiet – and to see and bee seen. Upon returning from their walk, it became “the thing” to enjoy a late evening meal of wheat rolls, butter and tea.

It is not possible to determine when exactly this tradition began. However, it dates as far back at least as 1747 when a new grand bell was installed in the Copenhagen Cathedral. So lovely was the sound of the bell that the Copenhageners (ie. the bourgeoisie) promenaded with the express purpose of hearing the bell.

Some still go for walks on the evening before the holiday. No longer to be seen, but rather to enjoy the onset of the coveted “bright nights” when the days grow longer and the nights shorter – should the weather allow it. It is Denmark, after all.

Others meet up with friends or family to enjoy the slightly sinful treat of wheat rolls with butter and other lovely things for a late evening meal.

The candles in the window

Springtime in Denmark abounds with days of celebration and memorial. Each day with its own set of traditions.

Candles in the windows in Copenhagen on May 4th 2017

One such day is May 4th. The tradition with which it is connected is the placing of candles in all the windows of the house as dusk sets in. A simple gesture symbolizing something far from simple: Freedom.

A light at the end of five dark years
In the beginning of May 1945, Denmark had been living under occupation by Nazi-Germany for five years and one month. Much had happened since the dark spring day of April 9th 1940 when German troops crossed into Denmark and changed everything.

The most important thing at least as it must have felt in May 1945 was that Adolf Hitler’s seemingly invincible army did not seem so invincible any more. News had been censured during the occupation, so not all was known of what was going on throughout Europe.

During the spring of 1945, however, there was a sense that “something” was up. And when news of Hitler’s death on April 30th was proclaimed via official channels, the sense of this “something” became more substantial and the country was humming with rumours and hope.

A historic moment and a radio silence
On the evening of Friday May 4th 1945 this “something” finally had to give: At precisely 8.30 pm, Danes across the country were as per usual tuning in to the daily news in Danish broadcasted from the BBC in London. In so doing they were, defying both official protocol and incessant German attempts to jam the radio signal. But listen they did.

For five minutes, the speaker read the news as usual. Then something unusual happened. The radio went silent for ten long seconds. When the speaker continued, he set off one of the biggest nights of celebration in the history of Denmark as he spoke the words:

“At this moment we are receiving the news that Montgomery [the British Field Marshal] has announced that the German troops in Holland, Northwest Germany and in Denmark have surrendered. This is London. We repeat…”

The surrender was not to go into effect until the morning of May 5th at 8 am. But the Danes did not seem to care. People stormed into the streets where they celebrated, cheered and made bonfires, on which they burned the hated blackout curtains they had been forced to live with since the beginning of the occupation. No light was allowed to seep out of the houses – now, all people wanted was to let the light flood out.

As dusk set in half an hour later, people across the country spontaneously began lighting candles in their windows, replacing the blackout curtains with light.

“Closed because of joy … Hurrah”
Source: Wikicommons, copyright free photo.

Should or shouldn’t
Later it was learned what happened during the ten seconds of silence in the evening broadcast from London. What seemed like ten long seconds of just silence, was ten seconds of intense drama in the small Danish radio studio in London:

As he was reading the news, the speaker was handed a note with the ground-breaking news. He quickly needed to decide whether to read the news at once or wait to have it confirmed. This, however, would mean that the news of the liberation would be a day late in reaching the Danish population. This could have dire consequences for civilians and resistance fighters alike, who had become more and more active as the war seemed to be drawing to its close.

In the end, the speaker decided to read the news. Thereby he inadvertently sparked the tradition, which you may still see in homes across Denmark should you go for an evening walk on the evening of the 4th of May.   

In the clip below, you can hear the radio announcement from May 4th 1945. Unfortunately without English subtitles. First you hear the call signal of the BBC followed by the Prince of Denmark March and the words “This is London, BBC sending to Denmark”. If you jump to 1:55 you will hear the silence begin at 2:00 as the speaker turns of his microphone to verify the message he has been given. At 2:11 he returns with the message of the liberation.

Notes for another day: The days following the “Liberation announcement” as it has since been known, were days of both joy and reckoning. And on the island of Bornholm, joy soon turned to fear again as Russian troops landed on the island, occupying the island and its citizens until April of 1946. So not all was peaceful and good yet – but that is another story to tell.

Sources: www.Danmarkshistorien.dk

The leaves of the beech tree

At some point during the weeks of early spring, you may come across a somewhat surprising news story in the Danish media: That green leaves have been observed on a beech tree somewhere in Denmark(!).

This piece of news, which some years may be served with an almost ”BREAKING NEWS”-worthy vibe, will include the location of the first, green beech tree. And quite often it seems to be a bit of a competition between the different parts of the country to see, who will be the bearer of the news that spring has indeed sprung.

But why this keen interest in the leaves of a tree? Or rather of this tree: The beech.

More than just a tree
The beech tree is one of the most common trees in Denmark, covering about 17% of the country’s forests. In Danish history and folklore, however, it is much more than “just” a tree: It is one of the national symbols of Denmark, as important as the Little Mermaid and the red-and-white flag.

The beech grew in symbolic worth during the Danish Romantic movement of the 1800s. While the innovations and societal change of the Industrial Revolution grew stronger, the Romantics praised the grandeur of nature in art and literature.

There is a lovely land
In 1819 the Romantic poet Adam Oehlenschläger wrote a poem, which has since become one of the two national anthems of Denmark: Der er et yndigt land / There is a lovely land.

In his poem, Oehlenschläger (whose names most Danish school children dread having to spell as they inevitably encounter him at some point or other) mentions the beech tree as one of the defining characteristics of the Danish countryside and thereby all that is Danish:

There is a lovely land
with beech trees grand aplenty
encircled by the sea.
Her hills and vales are manifold.
Her name of old is Denmark
And she is Freya’s home.

The Romantics loved tales of the national language, culture and history while praising the ideals GOODNESS, TRUTH and BEAUTY – all characteristics, which are evident in Oehlenschläger’s poem: Denmark is not only an ancient country with a proud history. It is the home of Freya, the Norse goddess of beauty, love and fertility. And the beech tree stands sentinel over Freya’s hall.

Beech versus oak. People vs. king.
During the 1800s the beech covered more than half of the Danish forests. And as it was so manifold, the tree became the symbol of the people and the new democratic endeavours of the age. After generations of absolute monarchy, Denmark was moving towards a more democratic rule and its first constitution in 1849.

Generations of Danish monarchs had been symbolically represented by another popular Danish tree: The mighty oak. The oak symbolised strength and longevity and as it was used to build the ships of the royal Danish navy it was strongly linked to the monarch.

However, as the absolute power of the Danish monarch was coming to its end (which happened in 1848), the Industrial Revolution brought steel onto the naval scene, replacing the need for the oak.

Power to the people
Instead, the power of the people was on the rise. And the beech tree – first to turn green in the spring – became the symbol of the new age. The age of the people … or so it seemed to the Romantics who wrote about and painted the mighty beech with great fervour. 

As the year turns and winter moves into spring, it is therefore not hard to infer the symbolic meaning of watching for the first green leaves on the beeches of the Danish forests.

To most Danes nowadays, however, it may well just be a herald of the spring. Still symbolic enough, of course, to be given a spot on the evening news every year.

The dark spring day in 1940

April 9th is one of the many official Danish flag days. Days on which the Danish flag is to be raised at public, state and other official buildings – along with technically anyone else who owns a flagpole. Most of these official flag days fall during the Spring time months.

Flags fly at half mast on April 9, 2018, at one of Copenhagen’s many bridges.

April 9th is probably one of the darker ones on the list. It marks the day in 1940 when Denmark was occupied by the German army during World War 2. To remember this dark day in Danish history, the flag is to be flown at half mast from sunrise untill noon – or 2 minutes past noon to be precise – at which point it is raised to full mast until sunset.

The day that changed everything
In the early pre-dawn hours of April 9th 1940 – at 4.20 am to be precise – German troops crossed the border between Denmark and Germany. A short while later, German fighter planes started flying over the Danish countryside, bound for airports and places of military importance.

Only six hours later, the occupation was complete. Faced with the choice of agreeing to an unconditional surrender or the complete annihilation of the inferior Danish military forces, the Danish government had chosen to capitulate: Denmark was occupied and would remain so until May of 1945 – a little over five years later.

All across the country, German planes dropped printed statements, informing the citizens of Denmark of the occupation of Denmark and Norway (which was occupied at the same time as Denmark). In this brief statement written in – as it was noted with some indignation – very poor Danish, the citizens of Denmark were informed that the occupation was rooted in a well-meaning wish from the German forces to protect Denmark and Norway from a British invasion. There cannot, however, be much doubt at what the citizens of the two now occupied countries would have preferred, had they been given the choice.

Light and dark go hand in hand
Since the liberation in 1945, April 9th has been a day of remembrance with room for contemplation. Today, almost 80 years later, some find it strange to keep remembering the beginning of the war. However, the day remains as an official day of mourning, remembrance and – as the flag is raised to full mast at noon – contemplation of what came after five dark years.