What’s being marked on Buß- und Bettag (Day of Repentance and Prayer)?
This Wednesday, November 22, is a day off work in Saxony - and a day off school in Bavaria - as these states mark the Buß- und Bettag (Day of Repentance and Prayer). Germans may joke that it’s a great day to stay in bed (Bett), but the origins of this holiday are actually much more solemn. We take a look at the history and purpose of the day.
What is Buß und Bettag?
Buß und Bettag (Day of Repentance and Prayer) is a time when Protestant churches in Germany celebrate a day of repentance and prayer, similar to the Eidgenössische Dank-, Buss- und Bettag in Switzerland.
When is Buß und Bettag in 2023?
Buß und Bettag is celebrated on the penultimate Wednesday before the beginning of the Protestant liturgical year on the first Sunday of Advent. This means it is always on the Wednesday that falls between November 16 and 22.
In 2023, Buß und Bettag is on Wednesday, November 22.
Is the Day of Repentance and Prayer a public holiday in Germany?
The Day of Repentance and Prayer used to be a public holiday across the whole of Germany, but nowadays is only a holiday in the state of Saxony. It is also a school holiday in Bavaria - meaning all schools and most kindergartens are closed in the free state on this day. To explain why this is the case, we need to dive into the history of the Day of Repentance and Prayer.
History of Repentance Day
Throughout history, all the way back to antiquity, people have often been urged to practise repentance and prayer in response to looming crises. In the face of emergencies and danger, entire populations would be called to repent, fast and pray, to throw themselves on the mercy of the gods.
The Christian custom of repentance and prayer
This custom was also practised by Christians. In one particular story in the Bible, Jonah is sent by God to Nineveh to announce that the city was going to be overthrown. Anguished, the King of Nineveh called on his people to fast and “turn every one from his evil way… and repent”.
In medieval times, Christians would practise repentance on Ember days, quarterly blocks of three days set aside for fasting, prayer and abstinence. The purpose of Ember days was to give thanks to God for the gifts of nature, teach men to use them in moderation and provide assistance to the needy.
The first day of prayer
After the Reformation, the Protestant Church continued this tradition, periodically calling penance days in response to specific circumstances.
Then, in 1532, soldiers under the command of the Ottoman Empire invaded the eastern corner of the Holy Roman Empire. In response, Emperor Charles V in Strasbourg called what is now considered to be the first official general day of prayer.
Over the following centuries, multiple territories within the Holy Roman Empire all called and affixed their own days of repentance and prayer. In fact, so many different parishes announced them that Buß- und Bettage began to increase rapidly in number.
47 days of prayer become one
By 1878, within the different states that made up the German Empire, there were 47 different such feast days, celebrated on 24 different dates - presenting something of a logistical nightmare for a newly unified Germany.
Prussia therefore fixed the last Wednesday before 23 November as the uniform Day of Repentance and Prayer, and made it a statutory day off work. Other Protestant churches eventually followed, and by 1934 the date was fixed nationwide.
Buß and Bettag’s chequered history as a holiday
In 1939, Buß und Bettag was abolished as a statutory non-working day, to give more working hours towards the war effort. It was moved to a Sunday, before being moved back to a Wednesday in the postwar years.
It remained a statutory holiday in all German states until 1967, when it was abolished as a holiday in the communist German Democratic Republic. Only after Reunification in 1990 was Buß und Bettag once again established as a statutory public holiday across the entire country.
In 1994, however, the federal government passed a law to introduce long-term care insurance. This new branch of social security needed to be funded, and so the government proposed a solution: to decrease the number of public holidays in Germany by one, without increasing salaries. The additional revenue created on the extra workday could then be used to finance the insurance.
All of the German states agreed to the proposal, except the Free State of Saxony, which instead chose to accept a higher charge on labour revenues. As of 1995, therefore, Buß und Bettag remains a holiday in Saxony only.
How is Repentance Day marked in Germany?
On the Day of Repentance and Prayer, religious people in Germany will take the opportunity to pray and consider their faith. Many churches will hold special services to commemorate the day. For non-religious people, it’s simply a nice opportunity to take a day off work, perhaps building annual leave around the day to take a holiday, or simply spending the day off with family and friends.
Like Good Friday, the Day of Repentance and Prayer is a designated silent holiday in Germany, and as such in some areas, certain activities are banned, for instance, dance events, the operation of slot machines, and even the opening of arcades.