Ascension Day: yet another holiday

May 25th was a national holiday in Iceland. Almost everyone has the day off and, if they had to work, they were paid double time.

May 25th was a national holiday in Iceland.

Almost everyone has the day off and, if they had to work, they were paid double time.

OK, OK, enough with the holidays?

Well, there are a lot of them each spring in Iceland, and many have religious roots.

Some say it’s because Iceland used to be so religious, but others (some of them ethnologists) suspect the reason lies in the need to celebrate the light after a long winter, and connect pagan traditions of spring and summer festivals to these holidays.

Nobody says it’s because Icelanders are religious nowadays.

Because they aren’t.

At least not in the way most Westerners view religion.

Though nearly 85 per cent of Icelanders belong to the National Lutheran Church, very few of them attend church on a regular basis — or find anything particularly religious about Ascension Day, which Christians celebrate worldwide.

Icelanders use the day for sleeping in; they fire up the barbeque at about 3 p.m.

The average Icelander only sets his or her foot inside a church for weddings and funerals.


Yet, the church is dependent upon the state, as it has been for hundreds of years in Iceland, like is, or was, in other Nordic countries.

But this appears to be changing.

With more freedom in religion and more vibrant immigration cultures sprouting in all Nordic countries, the countries are, one by one, engaging in discussions of separating church from state.

The two are connected in Iceland, Denmark and Norway, but the Swedes separated in 2000.

Just recently, the very religious (at least in comparison to the other Nordic nations) Norwegians began a widespread, very costly discussion on the possibility of separating. It asked for input from every parish in Norway, along with anyone else who had something to say about the matter.

So it may seem odd that Danes and Icelanders are not doing anything as drastic as the Norwegians, let alone the Swedes.

When you ask any Nordic person, Danes and Icelanders are the least religious of the four, with the Norwegians usually seen as the most religious.

But the Norwegians’ actions have caused a stir in Iceland.

About 86 per cent of Norwegians belong to the national church — a similar number to Iceland.

Perhaps that’s the reason the separation might work in Norway — Norwegians will likely continue to attend church on a daily basis, and willingly donate part of their salary to their church of choice.

Not so in Iceland, fear many politicians and priests alike, including the country’s bishop.

They suggest it is unlikely Icelanders would donate a part of their income to the church, were it not overseen by the state.

According to the Icelandic constitution, every person over age 16 pays a sum of a little less than $10 Canadian per month into either the religion they belong to, or to the state-run university.

They do not have a choice — the only choice Icelanders have is which religion, if any, to belong to. No one has to support a religion they do not belong to.

The smaller religions are quite upset about this. Many Icelanders don’t seem to care about where their tithe goes.

And the smaller churches are also irked by the fact that the national church is allotted a fair bit more than is taken from registered members’ taxes.

In a nation of 299,404 as of December 1st, 251,728 belonged to the national church, according to the national registry.

Some 7,379 people were registered as outside a religion, and 11,794 either belonged to a religion that is not registered in Iceland or had not declared which religion they preferred their kronas to go to.

Most of the rest belong to some Christian religion or another (only 6,451 are Catholic), 953 belong to the old, revived Norse religion, 631 are Buddhists, 341 belong to the Islamic association, and 389 to the Bahai.

Though things have changed now, just a few years ago stories abounded of someone within the national registry routinely placing foreigners into the national church, regardless of whether they had declared their choice or not.

Those who attempted to register with another religion, such as the Buddhists, mysteriously ended up, again, in the national church.

Whether that’s an urban myth or not, I shall not say, though it has all the makings of one.

Just like all the best true stories do.

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