Ascension Day in Finland: day off or not?

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Today is Ascension Day in Finland. In our blog this week, we’ll tell you what that means. We’ll also briefly explain who these types of religious holidays are intertwined with Finnish labor market politics.

Ascension Day

We celebrate Ascension Day in Finland 40 days after Easter as Christians everywhere do. The day celebrates Jesus’s ascension to heaven. As the date of Easter varies from year to year, so does the date of Ascension Day. But because the 40 days runs from Easter Sunday, it falls on a Thursday. Hence the Finnish name helatorstai (torstai meaning Thursday). 

In the past, people in southern and southwestern Finland burned bonfires around Ascension Day. Back then, the day was one of the most important religious holidays. Today, we really don’t have any shared traditions or foods that we would all do or eat on this day. 

Holidays in the Finnish calendar

If you’ve been reading our blogs for a while now, you’ve noticed that the Finnish calendar includes plenty of Christian holidays.  Whether or not you are Christian yourself, these holidays are relevant to you. That’s because often they mean that you’ll have a day off work. 

The Act on the Lutheran Church (kirkkolaki in Finnish) defines the following days as religious holidays in Finland: Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter Day, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whit Sunday (Pentecost or Whitsunday), Midsummer Day, and All Saints’ Day. 

In addition to those religious holidays, there are vappu (May Day) and the Finnish Independence Day that are observed. 

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Take a day off work?

The Act we mentioned before enumerates the days that are religious holidays. But there are no laws that would make those days vacation days when they fall on weekdays.  

Whether or not you’ll have to work on these days depends on what type of work you do. In Finland, collective agreements regulate employment relationships to a large extent. Collective agreements determine the employment conditions of about 89 % of wage earners in Finland. 

Those collective agreements include provisions concerning these holidays. Depending on your line of work and the applicable collective agreement, they are either workdays with increased pay or days off. 

For workers with a fixed monthly salary, these holidays often reduce the number of hours they need to work that month. Workers on hourly wages often receive a special religious holiday compensation (arkipyhäkorvaus in Finnish) for that day. Otherwise, their earnings would drop as they have to take a day off from earning. 

Out of all of these, Independence Day is the only salaried day off based on law if it falls on a weekday. 

Although the Church Act enumerates the religious holidays, that law doesn’t in any way require those holidays to be observed by Finnish workers or employers. The fact that they for the most part are, is rooted in Finnish labor market politics. 

Ascension Day is a good example of how such religious holidays have a role in Finnish labor politics. And sometimes they can dominate the discussions. The roots of this role go all the way back to the 1950s, but below we won’t go all the way back there. 

Ascension Day and Finnish labor politics

In 2015, the Finnish government lead by then Prime Minister Juha Sipilä wanted to change Ascension Day and Epiphany into regular working days. Their government’s purpose was to make Finns work more during the year. The government started negotiations with employers and employees to achieve this. The end result of the negotiations was that Ascencion Day became a regular working day only in some labor market sectors. In a lot of sectors, however, it’s still a day off with pay. 

So, the Finnish government was unable to change those two religious holidays into regular workdays for everybody. Finland has a strong labor union sector and a long history of tri-partite negotiations between the government, employers, and employees. This episode again showed that.

The Finnish government also cannot on its own change the dates of religious holidays in Finland. The suggestion to change the law has to come from the Lutheran Church of Finland. 

Despite this, religious holidays in Finland have changed their place in the calendar in the past. And there have been different policies regarding days off and compensation.

For example, Midsummer used to be on June 24. Now it is on the Saturday that follows June 19.

Starting in 1973, Ascension Day and Epiphany were moved to fall on a Saturday. In 1992, both were moved back to their proper places. Epiphany was on January 6th again, and Ascension Day 40 days after Easter. 

Between 1992 and 2002, workers could take Ascencion Day off but they had to do the hours in.  After the 2001-2002 negotiations between employers and employees, workers didn’t have to do that anymore.

Thus, as religious as these holidays may be, whether we get those days off and whether we get paid for those days is very much a political issue. 

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