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.