The autumn-break – From backbreaking potato-harvest to fun-filled family time

It seems that the seasons have truly changed and autumn has reached Denmark this week (the week of October 14th-22nd 2017). Temperatures are slightly milder than usual, but the leaves on the trees are turning yellow and are embarking on their windswept waltzes across streets and gardens. And then, of course, we are in the middle of the event, which more than anything heralds the arrival of Autumn in Denmark: The autumn school break.

As the Danish school year begins in mid-August and as Denmark is more or less holiday-free from about June to December, the Danish schoolchildren are in much need of a break once October comes around. This is why ”week 42” or ”Autumn-vacation” as it is popularly known is a much longed for time for travels, out-door activities or just time off with parents or grandparents.

Around the country, tourist attractions and cultural institutions from museums to theatres, libraries and amusement parks offer a plethora of workshops, exhibits, performances and activities for children and families – making it a fun, if rather busy, time to go exploring in Denmark.

However, this week of fun and relaxation became a part of the Danish school year not because the children needed a week off, but because the children were needed at home on their parents’ farms.

Potato “vacation” – a week of hard work and long days
When the first Danish “School law” calling for compulsory education was passed in 1814, it was recognized that children living in the rural areas were not able to attend school as often as their urban counterparts.

Children were needed on the family farms to make ends meet and so they generally only attended school every other day and parents were allowed to keep their children out of school “as needed” during sowing and harvest time. This included the harvesting of potatoes and turnips during the early autumn months (they grew different potatoes then than now – which needed to stay in the ground longer).

By 1899, however, it was recognized that it was too difficult for teachers in the rural area to get any proper work done in school when the children were gone from school on random days and often with short notice.

Children hard at work in a potato-field.
Photo curtesy of Odense Bys Museer

In 1899 it was therefore decided to name “week 42” – typically the third week of October – the official “Potato week”, where the harvesting could take place while making sure that the children well back in their classrooms the following Monday.

From hard work to relaxation
The “potato vacation” remained dedicated to the potato harvest up through the first half of the 20th century. But from the end of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s, the week gradually transformed into a week of relaxation as adult labourers were hired to do the hard work instead.

And so while, farmers across the country are still working hard to bring in the late potato harvest, to most children and families the “Potato vacation” has become the “Autumn vacation” – and the heaviest workload is now most likely felt by the parents, who have to figure out how to keep their children entertained during a whole week off from school.

As for the children – there are probably still a fair share who get their hands nice and dirty during the week, but that will most likely be from exploring the forest floor or playing in the falling leaves rather than from picking potatoes from the ground.