more holidays more holidays

This is a long weekend in Iceland. The reason? Whitsunday and the Second in Whitsun. A Christian holiday, you see.

This is a long weekend in Iceland.

The reason?

Whitsunday and the Second in Whitsun.

A Christian holiday, you see.

So everyone gets Monday off, or are paid overtime for working that day.

If you have been following my columns lately, you may sigh now and just want to turn the page as you think: “Those crazy Icelanders. They say they’re not that religious, but yet, they have more religious holidays than any nation I know of.”

And you’d be right.

(Except in the turning the page, that is. Hang in there.)

At this time of year, it appears that Icelanders’ religion is compacted into several holidays.

Just about every weekend is a long one, due to Easter’s late arrival this year, and all the other holidays Icelanders cram into spring and early summer.

As a regular Icelander with a general education in Christianity, I don’t even know why Whitsunday is celebrated.

And neither did any of the 10 people I asked at random.

“Uh, it has something to do with Jesus, I’m sure,” was the general response of university-educated professionals.

Despite the fact that more than 84 per cent of the nation belonged to the national church last December, Icelanders aren’t, as a general rule, very concerned with the church or religion.

According to a 2003 Gallup poll, two-thirds of Icelanders want to separate the national Lutheran church from the state.

This was the second year in a row Gallup got that poll result to the same question.

More men than women wanted to separate, and more city dwellers wanted to separate than country folk. And unsurprisingly, older people are more reluctant to separate than younger.

Moreover, the bishop of Iceland is very much against the separation — perhaps predictably.

Church and state have been connected in Iceland since Icelanders first became Christian.

The Vikings that arrived in Iceland in the late 9th century mostly belonged to the Old Norse religion, whereas their Irish slaves were mostly Christian.

The two religions coexisted without much bloodshed or fights.

In the year 1000, Icelanders became Christians literally at a sword-point, due to the coercion of the Norwegian king.

About 500 years later, the Danish king used the same tactic (a little more brutal, that time, actually) to convert Icelanders from Catholics to Lutherans.

Though separation between church and state began in Europe in 1868, Iceland reacted by allowing Icelanders to pick which religion to belong to in 1874 (though Christianity was still the only religion of choice), and in 1915, the constitution was changed so that Icelanders could stand outside a religion, should they decide to do so.

Most didn’t, and few other religions have had much success in attracting Icelanders until in the past few years.

And still, only about two per cent of Icelanders belong to the Catholic church — most that do, are of Polish descent and are recent immigrants to Iceland (in fact, Catholic church mass is said in Icelandic, Latin, English and Polish).

(A confession here. Catholicism was so rare in Iceland when I was a child and religious education so limited that I was convinced that those people who gathered in the huge grey concrete church by the hospital belonged to a dangerous cult.)

In 1997, a group of people got together and founded an organization on the separation of church and state.

The membership of Samtok um adskilnad rikis og kirkju, or SARK, isn’t big, but on the board sits a Lutheran priest along with a few other very educated people.

“I believe that when the national church institution does not treat other religions with justice, Christians should object such behaviour as un-Christian,” said minister Hjortur Magni Johannsson, then-president of SARK, in an interview with an Icelandic newspaper last year.

“I believe the national church institution has treated other religions with arrogance.”

Their argument is that no true freedom of religion can exist in a country where one church receives funds from the government.

They say this is a matter of human and religious equity.

They fight against children being automatically signed into their mothers’ religion at birth, as is the practice now, and argue for a more general education on religion.

SARK points out that one of every six Icelanders do not belong to the national church — or what equates to 10 of the 63 members of the Icelandic parliament, Althingi.

In fact, they go as far as to say it’s a matter of human rights, not to connect one sect of religion to a state.

And they may be right.

But even though not many people belong to SARK, Icelanders now follow happenings in Norway, where a widespread discussion on possible separation of state and church has recently been launched.

My guess is that in the next few years or decades, as the younger generation takes more power in municipal and federal governments, as well as within the Lutheran church, the national church will be separated from the state.

But whether the separation of church and state would mean fewer holidays in the spring remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, happy Whitsun and think of me as you head to work on Monday. I will be happily fishing somewhere, on my paid national holiday.