Viewed Through the Lens:
Confirmation: Coming of Age in Denmark and the US
In Denmark and the United States the event of Confirmation - affirming one's baptismal pledge as a Christian - often marked the boundary between childhood and leaving school and the adult world in the Lutheran church as well as other Protestant denominations. This exhibit highlights pictures and memories of confirmands from the late 19th century up to our day, showing changes in dress, practices and how confirmation was experienced by young adults in both countries.
Confirmation in Denmark
Danish king Christian VI passed a law in 1736 making it a legal requirement that young people confirm their baptismal promise as a way of strengthening their relationship with Christianity and the church. Confirmation came to be viewed as a kind of “entrance exam” for participation in religious and social life. An examination of a person’s knowledge of Christianity was required in order to be confirmed, and from 1810 on, proof of vaccination against smallpox or of having had natural smallpox was also required. Without a vaccination certificate one could not be confirmed, and without being confirmed one could not marry, attend school, begin an apprenticeship, serve in the military, be a godparent or vote. While the 1849 Danish Constitution gave the right to religious freedom, the Lutheran Church remained the State church into which all citizens were born and stayed unless they formally opted out. This tight connection between Church and State means that Danish Lutheran pastors are civil servants, paid by the Government.
Confirmation was tied to the end of mandatory schooling around age 14 and entry into the labor force, so thus was a stepping-stone to adulthood. Individuals from poor families who were unlucky enough to have to begin working before being confirmed had to accept a lower wage than those who had been. If one wanted to be confirmed prior to the age of 14, so as not to be a financial burden on one’s family, for example, a special Bishop’s dispensation had to be granted.
Traditionally, confirmations were held once or twice a year, usually at Easter and Michaelmas, depending on the size of the parish. Young people would take their places on chairs placed at the end of pews ranked according to the grades they were given for their knowledge of Christianity and deportment. Being placed toward the back of the church could be an embarrassment for the family, so rumors sometimes flew about a wealthy farmer or tradesman ‘buying’ a better place for his child. The examination requirement was abolished in 1909.
Following confirmation, only a few lucky young people had additional schooling or were able to find apprenticeships. The vast majority were given a skudsmaalsbog, or employment character reference book in which all future employment was to be recorded, and left home to work, often as farm hands and domestic servants. Without proof of confirmation one could not find work and would have to beg for a living, which was illegal. As mandatory education was extended to eight, and later, nine years, this requirement was gradually abolished.
As part of the transition to adulthood young people were given new clothing for confirmation. What they wore for the ceremony would usually be their first “grown-up apparel” and was often their best outfit for many years in the future. The 1736 law determined that girls were to wear a dress of black or white taffeta or other fabric. The dress had to be simple and undecorated unless the decoration was of the same fabric as the dress itself. The neck had to be covered. This high-necked black confirmation dress was especially worn by rural women and served as their ‘best’ dress for future solemn or festive occasions. Some women were married and buried in the same dress they had worn for confirmation. Girls might also have their hair put up into an ‘adult’ style for the first time. Far up into the 20th century confirmation was also when a boy got his first suit or dress outfit of trousers, vest and jacket.
It was a matter of family prestige and honor that their children wore decent and correct clothes for their confirmation. Shoes too were considered important. If a confirmand had to wear wooden clogs instead of leather footwear this was embarrassing for the family. Obtaining the proper clothing and shoes was often a big problem for the families of poorer smallholders and laborers. Various organizations, such as a ‘confirmation insurance society,’ existed in some areas to assist those in need or a family might start a ‘confirmation fund’ in anticipation of the future day.
White dresses for girls were introduced in the first decades of the 20th century. Since these dresses had more limited usability, the concept of andendagstøj (second-day clothes) came into vogue. This set of clothes might include an adult-style coat and hat as well as a good dress or suit.
The custom of new clothing also reinforced the symbolism of leaving behind one’s former life and beginning one’s life anew, as an adult.
One of the first confirmation parties was held when the future King Frederik IV was confirmed in 1784. Gradually, the idea of a holding a festive dinner or party spread through the various levels of society, although even as late as the 1930s it was not at all uncommon for poor families not to do anything special – perhaps preparing a somewhat better dinner and giving a few modest presents to the confirmand. The modern way of celebrating confirmations in Denmark began after the austere years that followed World War II. Before then, gifts were usually ‘durable goods.’ Boys might receive watches, bikes or camera, girls jewelry or silverware. Another custom that arose was ‘Blå Mandag’ (Blue Monday), a tradition adopted from Germany, when new confirmands skip school or work to spend the day after their confirmation going downtown or to special parks or places of entertainment to show off their new apparel.
Confirmation as a rite of passage has changed considerably in recent decades. Lengthier education requirements and changes in social structure and mores have diluted its original meaning. When young people get confirmed in Denmark today, it does not mark an end to their education. The religious sense of the occasion has also become diluted as Danes have become less religious. The actual confirmation event has changed very little, however, with a certain number of mandatory hours of preparation classes and church attendance designated by each parish pastor and basically the same ceremony as in centuries past.
Confirmation is now viewed by many young people as a more or less secular event, an occasion for receiving gifts and a good deal of money. Some youth choose to forego confirmation itself in favor of a ‘non-firmation’ – the party without the church event. On the other hand, the celebration of ‘gold confirmations,’ when those who were confirmed together get together to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their confirmation, has also become a new custom.
(written by danish intern Jesper Jacobsen, pro tem Elk Horn, IA)