Your shirt is starched and ironed crisp, just like that five thousand króna bill in your pocket, ready for your nephew’s upcoming confirmation party. You can’t sleep because you know your grandmother’s half-sister’s second husband will squeeze your hand with force and loudly speak your name with his booming voice. He will look you in the eye and you will sweat—who is this person anyway? You will have to perform genealogical gymnastics without blinking. Time to pull out that family tree…
At the age of thirteen, Icelandic youth are given the choice to confirm their baptism in a holy ceremony. As Easter approaches, you choose either to become an adult Christian and be showered with gifts from relatives: laptops, smart phones, furniture, jewellery, camping gear, airplane tickets, books and hundreds of thousands of krónur in cash—or you choose not to.
If you say yes, your parents will most likely invite your relatives and the family’s closest friends to an afternoon gathering with a smorgasbord of cakes, coffee and this thing called ‘brauðréttur’ (“bread-dish”)—shredded bread baked with a bunch of cheese and ham and maybe asparagus or bell peppers or (god forbid!) pineapples. Aunties will pinch your cheeks and your dad’s friends will tell you that the grand old days of youth are behind you while you nod and smile. You have never kissed a girl, never had a sip of wine.
WILL YOU ACCEPT J.C. AS YOUR LEADER?
This is how it works: Eighth graders can attend classes where they are schooled somewhat in Christianity but more so in ‘adult life;’ questions of ethics and love are raised and answers proposed within a theological framework. As I remember it, it wasn’t that overbearing—I was personally of the opinion that Jesus had been a mentally disturbed person who had nevertheless presented a wholesome and desirable view of society (my parents were not exactly thrilled when I went on record about this in a local newspaper a few weeks prior to my confirmation)—but a welcome break from math and Danish. After a while, you can decide whether you’d like to “accept Jesus Christ as your leader” or not. I said sure. That’s just what you did unless you were an exceptionally moral and/or religious teenager.
But all of this may be changing. The Church of Iceland is taking a lot of heat these days and resignations from the church are a common occurrence. In the nineties, nearly 90% of new-borns were baptised. Between 2002 and 2006, the percentage of new-borns baptised dropped to 78%, and between 2007 and 2011, the percentage dropped again to 69%. A decade from now, when those born in 2009 are ready for confirmation, the numbers will probably be considerably lower if the trend continues. These kids are missing out on some serious dough—and isn’t adulthood all about cash?
IT’S THE MONEY—OR IS IT?
If you’re not a believer and don’t want to falsely claim to be one, but you’d still like to mark your entry into adulthood in a more elegant manner than with a broken voice, low self esteem, overly elongated limbs and acne, Siðmennt is here to help. The Ethical Humanist Association of Iceland, Siðmennt, has been organising secular confirmation programmes since 1988. They are expecting 232 teenagers this year.
Views on ‘civil confirmation,’ as Siðmennt calls it, are divided. “Why be confirmed if you’re not a Christian? Some people may do it for money or for the presents. A lot of kids that I know from school are. I think that’s very strange. I think they’re being sort of selfish,” my thirteen-year-old nephew Hlynur Einarsson (confirmed on March 23) tells me. “I believe in Christ. I’m a Christian and I believe in God. I want to be confirmed. Going through all of this is a lot of fun.”
Did Hlynur always believe in God? “I think I’ve always been a believer. But since I went to Vatnaskógur [a popular Christian summer camp an hour outside of Reykjavík] my faith grew stronger and I was more interested. So I decided to sign up.”
NOT SO RELIGIOUS
Although most of Hlynur’s friends are going to be confirmed, the kids don’t talk much about the content or message of Christianity among themselves; they are preoccupied with gifts, he says. “Confirmation presents are naturally much more expensive than, say, Christmas gifts.” Hlynur’s own Bible verse (each confirmee recites a verse) from the Proverbs, echoes his sentiments: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold.”
Hlynur is looking sharp on his confirmation day: Bow-tie, cardigan, white dress shirt, jeans and a pair of Chuck Taylors. I definitely did not look this cool. “The ceremony was much more relaxed than when you were confirmed,” my mother tells me, “not so overly religious.”
At the end of the day it’s clear that Hlynur is more of an adult than ever before. Not only may he receive the Eucharist for the first time in his life, but he also has money.