Why is Ascension day (Hemelvaart) a public holiday in the Netherlands?

Why is Ascension day (Hemelvaart) a public holiday in the Netherlands?

Talk to anyone who has a job in the Netherlands and you’ll quickly realise that the topic of public holidays is a bit of a sore point. While people living and working in other countries across Europe can enjoy as many as 12 free days a year, here in the Netherlands the general public is offered a measly seven (or eight, which only happens every fifth year when Liberation Day is a holiday). To add insult to injury, any holidays that fall on a weekend aren’t compensated for, meaning that in some years, workers miss out on multiple days off. 

One of the public holidays the Netherlands does get, however, is Ascension Day, or Hemelvaart. But what exactly is Ascension Day? And why is this a Dutch holiday? Read on for answers to all your Hemelvaart-related questions!

What is Ascension Day?

Ascension Day is a key date in the Christian calendar, and marks the day that the church celebrates the ascent of Jesus Christ into heaven on the 40th day after his resurrection. It’s a holiday observed by Christians around the world, and is a recognised holiday in a number of countries across Europe, including Switzerland, Germany and France.

In Dutch, Ascension Day is known as Hemelvaartsdag - or just Hemelvaart - which translates directly as "heaven ascension day".

When is Ascension Day celebrated?

Ascension Day always falls precisely 39 days after Easter Sunday - the Day of Christ’s resurrection - and 10 days before Pentecost (Pinksteren). This means that the date of Ascension Day changes every year.

In 2023, Easter Sunday was celebrated on April 9. This means the Netherlands will celebrate Hemelvaart on May 18, and Pentecost, or Whitsun, will fall on May 28.

Why is Hemelvaart a Dutch holiday? 

The first known celebration of the day is believed to have occurred in the fourth century, but over time Ascension Day has become an increasingly important holiday within the Catholic Church. Like various other countries around the world, the Netherlands is traditionally a Catholic country, and a number of key Catholic holidays are celebrated with national holidays. 

This means that, while Dutch culture and society have become increasingly secular, a number of religious holidays are still recognised nationally, meaning civil servants and the majority of people working in the Netherlands have a mandatory day off on Hemelvaart.

How does the Netherlands celebrate Hemelvaart?

Historically, people in the Netherlands would wake up early on Ascension Day and go out into the fields before sunrise where they would engage in some dauwtrappen. This involved walking or dancing barefoot in the dew, which was believed to have healing and purifying properties. Nowadays, some families will cycle or go out for a walk on the morning of Hemelvaart instead. Catholic and Protestant Churches will also hold a Mass on Ascension Day.

However, considering the fact that the Netherlands tends to enjoy quite nice weather around the time that Hemelvaart falls, the day off has also become a popular date for various events and festivals, such as the Breda Jazz Festival or Rollende Keukens in Amsterdam

Furthermore, many schools close on the Friday after Hemelvaart, and sometimes people opt to take the Friday off work allowing them to enjoy a long weekend.

Happy Hemelvaart! Have you got any plans for your day off? Let us know in the comments below!

Victoria Séveno


Victoria Séveno

Victoria grew up in Amsterdam, before moving to the UK to study English and Related Literature at the University of York and completing her NCTJ course at the Press Association...

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