What is Ascension Day and what is open in Belgium today?

What is Ascension Day and what is open in Belgium today?
Credit: Belga

For Christians, Ascension Day (this year on 18 May) is a key celebration as part of the Easter cycle. For many others in the country, it is simply a welcomed day off.

What is Ascension Day?

This public holiday always falls on a Thursday, also called Holy Thursday, exactly 39 days after Jesus' resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday.

Within Christianity, the day commemorates Jesus' ascension to God as part of the Easter cycle, which begins at Easter and ends 50 days later at Pentecost or Whit Sun (which falls on Sunday 28 May this year). As Easter and Pentecost are determined on the basis of the lunar calendar, they fall on different dates each year.

Several traditional events take place in Belgium to mark the occasion, including the annual procession of the Holy Blood in the Flemish city of Bruges when the relic of the Holy Blood is carried through the city centre of Bruges.

The Holy Blood Procession in Bruges. Credit: Belga/ Kurt Desplenter

Around 1,700 participants sing, make music, dance and act as part of the procession in the style of the Burgundian era, which since 2009 has been inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural World Heritage Sites.

The international three-day hike, the 100 km of Ieper (Ypres), or the 'In Flanders Fields March', is also always held during the Ascension Day weekend in and around the West-Flemish city.

Services and transport

For most people, today is a bank holiday, and for some, it is even the start of a long weekend if the "bridge" is made by taking Friday off. This is the case for most public services, which automatically take both days as holidays. Banks will be closed until Monday – but online transactions can still be made.

Therefore, some public and municipal services, as well as social services centres (CPAS), will not operate until Monday. As for the waste collection and leisure services, it is recommended to check the website of local municipalities or the specific service or facility, as these may differ per region. For childcare, there is also no general rule.

Continuous services such as residential care centres, police, fire brigade and hospitals are of course open as usual, however, the police district offices are closed until Monday.

Bpost will not deliver mail, parcels, newspapers or magazines on Thursday, and all post offices and collection points will be closed. On Friday and Saturday, everything will proceed as normal, meaning mail will be distributed and post offices will be open according to normal opening hours.

As there are usually fewer passengers during the extended weekends, especially in the mornings, Belgium’s national railway service SNCB, the timetable on Thursday will be adapted to that of Sunday, while on Friday, ticket offices in stations will be open according to the Sunday timetable and some trains will not run. The exact changes to journeys can be found here.

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The weekend tickets, which see travellers save up to 50% on their return trip to Belgian destinations, will be valid for longer, from Wednesday 17 May (from 19h) to Sunday 21 May 2023.

Brussels public transport STIB, as well as Flanders' and Wallonia's public transport operators De Lijn and TEC, will continue to operate, but also at the reduced service schedule that is implemented on Sundays.

On Friday, buses will operate according to the regular weekly service, De Lijn said. On Saturday and Sunday, all public transport will follow the usual weekend schedule.`

What's open?

Smaller and more local Carrefour supermarkets will be open either all day on Thursday or in the morning, as well as some of Delhaize’s smaller Shop’n’Go markets, but Aldi, Lidl and Colruyt shops will remain closed until Friday.

Most shopping malls and other stores, such as clothing or electronics stores, will remain closed on Thursday but will reopen their doors on Friday and Saturday.

Restaurants, bars and cafes can stay open if they please, while most museums, amusement parks, zoos and parks will likely also be open. These locations, alongside the Belgian coast, are often flooded by visitors looking to enjoy a day out during the long weekend.

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